To every comic lover the name Tintin brings an exciting feeling. Steven Spielberg’s- The Adventures of Tintin- The Secret of the Unicorn, released last year might have renewed interest in Tintin’s country and even inspired a few to be there. Surely, whether you love comics or chocolates, Belgium is a traveler’s delight. And, it certainly has a lot more to offer.
Belgium is the country which gave birth to Tintin. Capital Brussels is fondly called as capital of Tintin by comic lovers around the globe. It all started here when Georges Remi, who would go on to world acclaim as Herge, was born in 1907. Here he grow up, went to school and created his first comic strip. Brussels was his life and obvious source of inspiration. In 1929, Herge first breathed life into his most celebrated hero Tintin in Le Petit Vingtieme (The Little Twentieth), the weekly youth supplement to Brussels-based newspaper Le Vingtieme Siecle (The Twentieth Century). Believe it or not, since 1929 some 230 million Tintin albums have been sold and adventures of this diminutive reporter have been translated into around hundred different languages to date. No wonder, Tintin has the stature of the world’s best-known Brussels resident.
But then, comics in Belgium is limited not just to Tintin, they also have stars like Smurfs and they have a created a huge following of… no, not comic lovers but of comic strip writers. It’s statistically said that with more than 700 comic strip authors, Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometre than any other country in the world! It is here that the comic strip has grown from a popular medium into an art in its own right. Nowhere else comics are so strongly rooted in reality and in people’s imagination. You can feel it everywhere you go in Belgium. It can be said that the heart of European comic strips beats in Brussels.
This also gives a completely new dimension to travel the land photo-represented mostly by Manneken Pis. Belgium is among the countries that love their art and are most happy to display it publicly. Belgium has indeed been home to many legendry artists like Jan van Eyck and Peter Paul Rubens, but going around in Belgium, it is street art that will fascinate as much as the Graffiti street at Ghent or MAS at Antwerp. And it is certainly not surprising for a country which shed its inhibitions centuries ago to glorify a pissing boy as a mythological icon. And as if it was not enough, went ahead in creating a feminine version as Jeanneke Pis, albeit just about twenty five years ago. It might not be as celebrated as its illustrious partner and there might not be that many visitors as the historical male version attracts, still it sheds light on the inclusive culture of the city.
But then, Brussels was the last stop in my Belgium trip, where my encounter with Tintin was destined. My tryst with Flemish art started well in Bruges during the boat ride in its canals for which it is also called as ‘Venice of The North’. I could see interesting sculptures and paintings along the waterway for full public view. I started enjoying the way art was mingled in the daily life of Flemish people. So much so that I even almost missed the setting of dog scene of the movie ‘In Bruges’. But luck was my way and I managed to even catch that beautifully.
But it was Graffiti street in Ghent that I instantly fell in love with. Had googled about it before the trip and every search result had in fact brought impatient me to the fore. It was something, I haven’t seen anywhere before. A street overflowing with all kind of colourful and expressive graffiti from top to bottom and start to finish, not just on the side walls but on the walkway itself. In it were some finest expressions of feelings, emotions, ideas and ideologies. I was fortunate enough to see some young artists at work. Perhaps it was also the playing ground for all budding comic strip artists of Belgium. They way different graffiti co-existed and were overwritten again and again every time, I couldn’t help thinking that it was where they were sowing the seeds of tolerance within the society.
Antwerp was more of a happening city, often termed as fashion capital or the diamond capital. Here comic art was live and intriguing. You can find all kind of exhibitionists on roads- from pretty guitarists to masqueraders who can fool you (or rather impress you) with their Vincent Van Gogh. Since Belgium is everything about chocolates, you can find all types of experiments with them from body paint to cartoon characters. In Neuhaus chocolatier at Royal Galleries of Saint-Hubert I found a whole range of Tintin comics packaged with chocolate boxes. Kids will just love it.
Brussels’ comic museum is a huge draw for the tourists coming to Belgium. Every year more than 200,000 visitors come here to explore 4,200 m² worth of permanent and temporary exhibitions. At the Belgian Comic Strip Center, you will witness the unusual marriage of the Ninth Art and Art Nouveau, two artistic forms of expression which have always been particularly cherished in Brussels. Besides Tintin, this kingdom of the imagination is home to some of Belgium’s best-known comic strip heroes like Spirou, Bob and Bobette, the Smurfs, Lucky Luke, Blake and Mortimer, Marsupilami, etc. They are one big happy family of paper heroes. Belgian Comic Strip Center has become the number one reference for comic strip lovers. It is also a modern research centre which boasts more than 40,000 titles (albums and theoretical works) in more than 20 languages.
But then, as in other cities of Belgium, in Brussels too, comics are not just limited to comic strip museum. Going down the Stoffstraat towards the Manneken Pis, you may find comic scenes drawn across the whole height of side wall of a four-five storey residential buildings and in one of them I even found Tintin coming down a four storey ladder. Ofcourse, when it comes to comics and Tintin you will never escape them when you are in Belgium.
Capital city Brussels is one of the most well connected European cities from India. We have direct, non-stop, daily flights from all the four metros to Brussels. Once in Brussels, Belgium is well-connected through roads. Driving there is fun through the countryside, a typical European one- lush green. Brussels to Bruges was just a few hours’ drive and then Bruges to Ghent, Ghent to Antwerp and Antwerp to Brussels, every bit worth enjoying.