Dinant Belgium: Celebrating famous son Adolphe Sax, music, and history (and a bit of beer)

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Filled today with shops on winding streets, a fortress overlooking the city, a church with a highly unusual dome, all the result of Dinant’s triumph over its devastation in World War I when 2/3 of the town was destroyed. Dinant also offers a sweet tribute to its famous son Adolphe Sax.

Celebrating famous son Adolphe Sax

It’s impossible to miss the connection between the endearing and indomitable town of Dinant and famous son Adolphe Sax. giant saxophones line Charles DeGaulle Bridge (more on that in a minute), stylized pieces of saxophones lead to the building on the Sax family home site. For a more personal touch you can even pose next to a bronze sculpture in front of the tiny Adolphe Sax museum. A temporary "exhibit" of Sax-centered cartoons are painted on store windows.

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Not a town to dwell on the devastation of the past, Dinant would much rather highlight Adolphe Sax, born Antoine-Joseph in 1814. Although he lived in Dinant for only a year before his family moved to Brussels, and eventually Paris, Dinant nonetheless can claim him, and does so with gusto.

His father Charles-Joseph was considered one of the most important Belgian instrument makers but he was eclipsed by the brilliance of his son. Starting with innovations in the clarinet, the younger Sax moved on to develop a unique musical instrument which bears his name. By the end of his life in 1894 Sax had filed 47 patents and additional certificates of protection for his own inventions and his improvements. His instruments enlivened operas and musical performances during his lifetime and went on to become a musical necessity for the later emerging musical style we call jazz.

Sax was eventually done in by jealous rivals and cutthroat machinations. But they couldn’t take away the legacy of the instrument that still bears his name.

On Rue Adolphe Sax, you’ll find the free store-front museum on the site of the original Sax home, destroyed in WWI. A bronze sculpture of Sax seated on the bench outside heralds the museum. A patch on his knee is shiny from the hands of posed tourists polishing the metal. Inside you can listen to selections of music played on his marvelous invention. There are also historic photos and exhibits. It’s small but free so as you walk the town, take a few minutes to stop by and learn more about a man who revolutionized music.

While most cities simply put a For Rent sign on their empty store fronts, in Dinant an empty window is an invitation for a clever and beautifully executed cartoon, Sax-themed of course. But visitors will still enjoy this informal works of street art.

Rue Adolphe Sax lives up to its name with enlarged pieces of saxophones mounted on pedestals along the street. Signs in French, Flemish, and English explain their meaning and importance.

Maison de la Pataphonie

This relatively hard to visit place is worth the effort. In homage to Dinant’s famous son, the House of Pataphony has a room devoted to Sax, but this unusual Maison is all about making music with household items. Think Stomp but where you get to participate.

The 15th century house has been renovated into a series of rooms each with its own theme – water, metal, wood, even stones. But the instruments are all made with common objects, and everyone get to play an instrument with one of the founders or guides as conductor.

They love to work with a group of 5 or 6 which turns out to be the optimal size for making their free-spirited music, and need 3 or 4 days notice. But if you can put a group together, or you’re traveling with your family, this place rocks (and rolls).

Charles de Gaulle Sculpture and Bridge

Visitors may wonder at the statue of a young Charles de Gaulle standing at the foot of a bridge that bears his name. The connection is tenuous but Dinant still celebrates the association. Lt. Charles de Gaulle, the future President of the Republic, was shot in the leg during a major battle in Dinant on August 15th, 1914. In commemoration the statue was erected on August 15th, 2014 as part of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I (or the Great War as it was then called). The bridge was destroyed in both wars and rebuilt. Today it is lined with stylistic saxophones created in the spirit of the nations of the European Union as part of the town’s tribute to Adolphe Sax.

Beer, Church, and a Fortress on a Hill

Maison Leffe, located in a wonderfully quirky convent-cum-hotel, is an informative and interactive museum dedicated to the history of one of the most recognizable Belgian Trappist beers. Leffe beer dates back to 1240 and the self-guided tour takes visitors through the beer-making process, the life of a Trappist Monk, and finishes with a beer tasting. The exhibits are very well-done, but it is the beer that won me over.

Collegiale Notre-Dame – Collegiate Church of Our Lady Located at the foot of a cliff facing the Meuse River, right by the bridge, the setting is spectacular. Originally constructed in 13th century this church dominates the landscape and has had quite literally its ups and down being destroyed and rebuilt. The church is topped by an unusual dome but the reason for the onion-like topper seems to be lost. It might be that the city wanted something unusual to make their church stand out. If so, they succeeded in creating something both attractive, and intriguing. Inside don’t miss the huge and intricate stained glass window honoring the important men and women of the Bible.

Above the city, a funicular ride up the mountain (or a walk of 408 steps), La Citadelle de Dinant offers spectacular views as well as the opportunity explore over 900 years of history, starting in 1040 with its building on that rocky outcrop to protect the Meuse valley below. It was rebuilt and enlarged in 1530, destroyed by the French in 1703, and rebuilt in 1821. Today it is home to Dinant's Arms Museum but it’s a memorial as well to the many who died there. Self-guided tour maps are available in English

Caves, Castles, and the River Meuse

There’s even more to do in Dinant – think castles, caves, and river activities. La Merveilleuse Caves of Dinant was discovered during the 1904 construction of the road in the city making it quite a convenient visit. It was used as shelter during World War II. Since Dinant is located on the River Meuse, there are also riverboat cruises to introduce you to the area and its history.

If you rent a car, take a drive along the Meuse to visit the castle and gardens of Freyr. Nearby the Chateau of Veves is currently closed but its fairy tale beauty can be glimpsed from the gate. Photographers with a bent towards ruins can explore the ruins of Crevecoeur. These and others are listed in the brochure Castles of the Meuse available at the tourism center at the foot of Charles de Gaulle bridge. It’s in English, French, and Flemish.

Lodging at La Merveilleuse Hotel and Restaurant

If you can find a room available in this intriguing convent-turned-inn, book it. La Merveilleuse Hotel offers striking views of the river and the town itself, although conveniently located just across the bridge from the main part of Dinant.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Dominican nuns built this convent in Neo-Gothic style. The nuns quarters have become rooms ranging from minimalistic comfort to luxury. The former garden has been roofed and turned into a restaurant where the complimentary breakfast is served in the morning, and dinner is available in the evening. Grab of Leffe beer and sit outside enjoying the lovely grounds and views.

La Merveilleuse has just opened a spa with a huge soaking pool lit with numerous LEDs that play on the water in a rainbow of color. Buttons in the pool allow bathers to control a series of water falls and water features. The size allows for soaking, playing, relaxing and even a swim. A full range of spa facilities is available.

The former chapel of the convent is now the location of the beer museum, Maison Leffe. Not quite as sacrilegious as it sounds -- making beer was a monastery activity going back centuries. When water isn’t safe to drink, beer becomes a better alternative.

Usually booked for groups, it would be my preferred place to stay if at all possible. Restaurant on the premises.

If You Go

Dinant is a very walkable city hugging the River Meuse. Stop by the tourist office by the Charles de Gaulle Bridge and pick up maps. Very little of the information is in English but the staff is knowledgeable and multi-lingual. Dinant offers a great short break from Brussels, about 90 minutes by train, or a relaxing destination on its own.

For more information go to Visit Belgium and Dinant Tourism

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: February 22, 2015

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