Blistering barnacles! I glance out of the Brussels metro train as it pulls into Stockel station and see an entire wall covered with characters from Tintin cartoons. No one seems surprised except me. But this is weird, is it not? You do not get the same thing in London, unless I have missed the Harry Potter stop on the Northern Line.
He may be fictional, but Tintin is possibly the most famous Belgian of all time. And he is likely to become more famous still when a Steven Spielberg film based on the 1942 Tintin adventure The Secret of the Unicorn is released in Europe later this month.
The Smurfs are also big in Brussels, even if they are only three apples high. So are other Belgian cartoon characters, like Lucky Luke, a cool cigarette-smoking cowboy, and Gaston Lagaffe, a blundering office junior who is forever trying to cheat parking metres. You can see many Belgian comic heroes on the supersized cartoon murals that appear on the side walls of almost 40 Brussels houses.
But Tintin leads the pack. It sometimes seems as if there is no escaping the little fellow made famous by the quiet Brussels illustrator Georges Remi (or Hergé as he liked to call himself). You have barely stepped off the Eurostar at Brussels Midi when you spot the familiar boy reporter hanging on for dear life as a steam locomotive hurtles across the prairies.
Once outside, you are unlikely to miss the giant revolving figures of Tintin and his dog Snowy on the roof of a nearby building. Turn down the rue de l’Etuve near Grand’Place and there he is on the side wall of a house, scrambling down a ladder. Exit from the Gare du Luxembourg and you pass another mural based on Hergé’s favourite characters.
In most countries, comic books are for children, but not in Belgium. Here they are treated as an art form. So Hergé is seen as a serious artist and even has his own museum, but not in Brussels, although he lived here all of his life. No, the Tintin Museum is in Louvain-la-Neuve, a dull new university town to the south.
What kind of second-rate son of a sword swallower would do such a thing? you might ask (if you have fallen into the habit of talking like Captain Haddock). It means you have to hop on a slow local train if you want to see the spectacular white museum designed by French architect Christian de Portzamparc and its fascinating collection of Hergé artwork.
Thankfully, other places linked to Hergé can be tracked down in Brussels, from the Jeu de Balle flea market (where, in The Secret of the Unicorn, Tintin finds a ship model containing a secret map) to Hergé’s grave in the lovely overgrown Wolvendael cemetery.
Now the Hollywood movie industry has taken an interest in Belgian comic books, we could see a rush of tourists to the Belgian capital.