My Saxophone Pilgrimage
Posted by cann0nba11 on August 27, 2008
A couple of weeks ago while on a business trip to London I had the chance of a saxophone players lifetime: a visit Dinant, Belgium, the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. It was a magical weekend that I will never forget. I brought my trusty 1960 Mark VI Selmer alto along with me to London specifically for this solo road trip to the mother land. Throughout this article I will try to include useful information for any sax players interested in making the trip.
My plan was to carry my gig bag and my video camera bag with me. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity so I wanted to be sure to properly document it. Traveling light is always a good idea, and my ProTec gig bag has a good amount of storage space for a change of clothes. I left from Chiswick, London around noon and took the tube to St. Pancras station where I was to transfer to the high speed Eurostar train to Brussels. About halfway to St. Pancras I realized that I left my passport back at the house. This was not good, because I needed to make the 3:00 train to Brussels in order to make the connecting train to Dinant and get to my hotel in time. So, at South Kensington I switch trains, made the trip back to get my passport, and lost about an hour. I caught the next train to Brussels.
Eurostar is way cool. It reached speeds well over 100 mph and is as smooth as silk. Seats are reserved and comfortable, and I even had a power jack to charge my cameras on the way. The club car offers sandwiches and drinks and plenty of room to stand and enjoy the view. Other than the very noisy French toddler in front of me my two-hour ride from London to Brussels was pleasant. Once in Belgium I switched to the national rail system, a much more modest mode of transportation. This ride was only 90 minutes but the views of the countryside were amazing and the time flew. Before I knew it I was in Dinant!
The train station in Dinant is about the size of a Dairy Queen. Once you walk out the red doors into the street you turn right and have a very short walk to an intersection. Turn left and in about 100 yards you find yourself facing a flag-lined bridge toward a very impressive view that includes an old cathedral alongside a picturesque canal under the shadow of very impressive citadel. Before you cross the bridge, turn left down the alley along the canal to the bottom of the hill and check out the Tourism Office. Like many businesses in Europe, it closes early and was closed when I got there.
I walked across the bridge snapping lots of pictures and then began looking for an ATM machine. Tip#1: Get Euros at the train station in Brussels before boarding the local train. There are only three ATMs in Dinant and the first one I found was out of order. To get to this machine continue walking with your back to the bridge, pass the long list of signs, pass the cafe and turn right down the first street after the cafe. The machine will be on your left a few buildings down the road. There is a second machine at the Post Office, which is just down the street on your right after you cross the bridge (turn right at the big bunch of signs and stay on the left side of the street. Walk a block or so and look down the first or second side street for the Post Office. The ATM is on the right in the recessed entry to the building.
Now that I had cash I could grab a cab to my hotel. The only real hotel in Dinant proper is the Ibis. Tip #2: Book your room in advance of your trip, not a few days before like I did. I ended up booking a room at the Hotel Aquatel about 3 km (2 mi) outside of Dinant. I didn’t see any cabs at the small town center so I walked back across the bridge to the train station where I saw two cabs waiting for fares. The driver only spoke French (the main language in Belgium) but its hard not to understand “Hotel Aquatel” so he nodded and we were on our way. I videotaped the ride most of the way there. When I got there I asked the driver to stay put to make sure that someone was working the desk before I sent him away. The desk was supposed to close at 7pm, I arrived at 8pm. I was happy to see an old gentleman behind the counter, I approached and said “reservation” and placed my credit card on the counter. He looked up and gave me international sign language for “one moment.” I went out and paid the cab driver six euros and went back inside.
Once the gentleman was off of the phone he looked at me like I had two heads. I again said “reservation” and held up my credit card. He shook his head no and wiped his hands as if he finished a shift at a blackjack table. I tried several ways to ask for a room, but apparently I was too late, all of the office staff were gone. For all I know this guy was a maintenance man on a personal call to his bookie when I arrived. So, I now found myself 2 miles away from Dinant with not a cab in sight. However, the river was right there and led back to where I wanted to be so I decided to walk the winding sidewalk along the river back to town.
This is probably a good time to discuss the weather. It was hot, almost 90 degrees. Now, living in Texas I’m quite used to heat much warmer that this, but I also know to dress appropriately. On this trip I had planned on weather in the 70s, so I was wearing jeans and a golf shirt. I had a t-shirt and change of undies in my gig bag, but that was it. I had no idea that I would be sweating like a pig on a spit for the day. It turns out that it was unseasonably warm this particular weekend so I just happened to luck out. The sky was blue but the mercury was rising. C’est la vie.
During my walk I found a nice place to stop so I set up my video camera and played my first notes in Belgium. It was pretty cool thinking that I was playing along the same river that Adolphe certainly walked along as a young instrument builder. Here’s the video.
I continued my walk toward town and figured I’d check with the Ibis to see if they had any cancellations. No luck. Outside the hotel is the Dinant Casino, and on the sidewalk is a map of the town. It listed another hotel only a couple of blocks away so I figured I’d try it out. It was almost dark and I was really interested in taking a shower. I walked the area for more than half an hour but I couldn’t find a hotel anywhere. I went back to the map and checked again. Yep, it says hotel. Now it was dark and I was rationalizing paying any price for a room at this point. I found the hotel and walked in to be quickly greeted by two French-speaking women. It turns out that the ‘hotel’ was actually more like a civic building or community center, not a true hotel. So, no room for me. Tired and hungry I walked back to the center of town and planned on pulling an all-niter just like back in college. It was about 10:30 PM now so I grabbed a seat at the cafe near the bunch of signs and enjoyed a nice dinner of salmon, salad and a couple of nice large beers (Kronenborg 1664). After all, Belgium is known for making awesome beer. 🙂
While eating dinner I heard some nice guitar playing at the pub next door. So after dinner I grabbed my gig bag and sat down at the bar to give a listen and drink some more beer. I hadn’t yet seen the famous sax statues yet, so what better way to help pass the time… But this was just the beginning of my adventure. Stay tuned for Part II of my story.