My visit to Belgium had nothing to do with chocolate or beer. The boy with the quiff was the draw. Spurred on by the imminent release of Spielberg’s Tintin blockbuster, it was time to pay homage to our hero and his creator, Belgian comic artist, Hergé.
The adventure began on a Ryanair flight to Brussels South Charleroi Airport. To get to the capital (as far from Charleroi as the French border), I took a bus, then a train. Impressed that the train was a double decker, I sat on the top deck. I did wonder if the “1” on the window meant it was first class. The inspector confirmed this when he checked our tickets and promptly moved me into second. As I arrived in Brussels an hour later, I spotted the huge heads of Tintin and Snowy towering above the offices of Lombard, publishers of Le Journal de Tintin. But just as we were pulling into our stop, Gare du Nord, I realised my bag was missing -- the one with the money, passports and plane tickets. Billions of blue blistering barnacles! Had it been pinched by the shifty looking man in the seat opposite? No, it was on the rack above the seat in first class where I’d left it.
The three-star Hotel des Colonies was a five-minute walk from the station. With an ornate fountain in the reception area, the hotel wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Tintin adventure. The five-star Hotel Metropole, the only 19th-century hotel still operating in Brussels, featured in The Seven Crystal Balls, but it was way beyond my budget.
Rue l’Etuve was the first stop on the Tintin trail. High on the building facing me was a huge mural of Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock running down a fire escape. I recognised it straight away as a scene from Tintin’s adventure, The Calculus Affair. This is one of many cartoon murals spread around Brussels. You can pick up a map for the Comic Strip Trail from the tourist information office in the Grand Place.
Much to Harry’s delight, the statue of the incontinent boy, Mannequin Pis, was also on Rue l’Etuve. The lesser-known female version, Jeaneke Pis, was nearby on Impasse de la Fidelite, just off Rue des Bouchers. There was even a canine version, Zinneke Pis, on Rue de Chartreux -- it has nothing to do with Snowy, however. You wouldn’t catch him urinating on the street.
Fuelled by another Belgian creation -- chips and mayonnaise -- I took the Metro to the next stop on the trail, Stockel underground station. A 20-minute ride to the east of the city, it’s well worth the effort. Along both walls of the station platform are murals of all the characters from Tintin’s adventures. I was clicking away with my camera when the station master came striding towards me, wagging his finger. You have to get permission to take photos here, he told me. Hergé is our national hero, you know.
Next morning, I was up early to catch the train to Louvain-la-Neuve (£8 return) and the highlight of our visit -- the Musee Herge. The building itself is spectacular, and a huge angular mural of Tintin greets you as you approach through woods. It even has the same address -- 26 Rue de Labrador -- as Tintin’s flat in Brussels. It’s just a pity you are not allowed to take photos inside.
The audio guide comes free with the entrance ticket (adults: £8, children age 5-14: £4) and it was a fantastic companion. I thought I knew a bit about the background to Tintin’s adventures having read Harry Thompson’s excellent (and criminally out of print) Tintin, Herge And His Creation. I was surprised to discover that Dr Muller, the baddie in The Black Isle, was based on a shady character called Georg Bell who had Scottish connections and was involved, apparently, in Hitler’s rise to power.
I was impressed by the model rocket Herge had built before he began work on Tintin’s adventures in space. Based on a wartime V2 rocket, it was the nearest thing to space travel when the books were published in the early 1950s. Astronomer Patrick Moore was an adviser on the British editions and Herge’s research was always done with fanatical attention. Near the model of Professor Calculus’s shark submarine from Red Rackham’s Treasure, there was a photo of a Professor August Piccard, a dead ringer for Calculus and the real-life inventor of a deep sea exploration vessel.
Four hours later, I reached the tower of Tintin books that marked the exit from the museum. I nipped quickly into the shop to see a group of Japanese tourists piling merchandise into their baskets. One of them was wearing a Tintin and the Buddhas of Bamiyan T-shirt. If only the boy reporter had made it to Afghanistan to save the 1500-year-old statues from the Taliban.
The museum’s Le Petit Vingtieme restaurant (named after the supplement in which The Adventures Of Tintin first appeared) is bright and spacious and has a daily special for £8, Tuesday to Friday. Dishes include quail stuffed with prunes in a port sauce and Flemish stew. But I didn’t have time to hang about. I grabbed some lunch from the farmers’ market stalls beside the station and caught the train back to Brussels for the next stop on the trail.
Housed in a beautiful art deco building, The Belgian Comic Strip Centre (adults, £7; children 12-18 years, £5; under-12s, £2.50) holds books from Belgium’s vast history of comic art, as well as Tintin memorabilia. On the way in, I spotted a broken step halfway up the stairs -- not an overdue repair, this was intentional. A tiny plaque showed that it replicated the step Captain Haddock tripped on outside Marlinspike Hall in The Castafiore Emerald.
A much more relaxed affair than the Musee Herge -- there was no problem taking photographs -- the Tintin displays included the sceptre from King Ottakar’s Sceptre and hundreds of tiny idols from The Broken Ear. The shop had the best prices for souvenirs -- certainly a good deal cheaper than La Boutique Tintin on the Grand Place.
The Horta Brasserie in the museum is open for lunch and serves Belgian waffles. It’s licensed too. But for Hergé fanatics, it’s worth getting tram 92 out to the Tintin-themed Fauberg Saint Antoine restaurant in the Shaerbeek district. The menu here changes daily and food is traditional and well-priced. There’s a friendly atmosphere and they even have a full-size Snowy spacesuit on display.
There was no escaping our hero back at the hotel. The Spanish barman in the child-friendly lounge was another Tintin enthusiast and kept me occupied for ages chatting about his favourite adventures.
Hergé’s hapless detectives, Thompson and Thomson, aren’t the only famous bowler-hatted Belgians. There’s also the surrealist artist Rene Magritte. I was determined to see the Musee Magritte before I left Brussels, but spent so long there that I didn’t have time to visit the flea market on Place de Jeu de Balle. That’s where Tintin buys the model ship for Captain Haddock in The Secret Of The Unicorn.
Next time, I’ll also visit the Tintin mural in Gare du Midi celebrating the centenary of Herge’s birth and make a pilgrimage to his grave in the Municipal Cemetery on Avenue du Diewig.
My Tintin fix at an end, I can’t wait to see Spielberg’s 3D animation, The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn which premieres in Brussels (where else?) on October 22 and goes on general release here on October 26.
But what’s been setting forums alight on Tintinologist.com is the fact that Captain Haddock has a Scottish accent in the film. Thundering typhoons! The only thing Scottish about Haddock is the Loch Lomond whisky he drinks. Herge would have had something to say about that.
Ryanair has return flights from Edinburgh to Brussels (Charleroi) from £41.98. Visit
Where to stay
Hotel des Colonies, 6-10 Rue des Croisades, Brussels.
or call +32 2 205 16 00. Double rooms from £94 per night.
NV Hotel Metropole, 31 Place de Brouckere, Brussels.
www.metropolehotel.com or call +32 2 217 23 00. Double rooms from £144 per night.
Musee Herge, 29 Rue de Labrador, Louvain-la-Neuve, is open daily except Mondays.
www.museeherge.com or call + 32 2 62 62 421.
The Belgian Comic Strip Centre, 20 rue de Sables, Brussels, is open daily except Mondays,
www.comicscenter.net/en/home or call +32 2 219 19 80.
Fauberg Saint Antoine restaurant, 65 Avenue Albert Giraud, Schaerbeek (92 tram route).
La Boutique Tintin,13 rue de la Colline 1000, Brussels,is open daily.
Tourist Information Office, Town Hall, Grand-Place, Brussels. See