True tales to rival Tintin
Tintin and co suited up for the stars / Picture: Niall McIlroy

As a seven-year-old, while other kids would lie under the covers turning back the page corners so they could retrace their steps in Choose Your Own Adventure books, I'd be in bed poring over the heavy world atlas the great traveller Santa had given me for my first Christmas in Australia. I'd plan adventures in Scandinavia and the Sahara. The place names intrigued me and I'd repeat them over in my head; Dagestan and Djibouti, Toronto, Tromso, Tyrol.

I memorised the capitals until I knew them all and traced the borders with my fingers puzzling over countries with corners.

Perhaps it was an infantile way of making sense of the world or trying to learn my place in it. Whatever, it soon grew into a yearning to travel, to learn about these places by being in them.

For a long time, besides that atlas so heavy it left a sag in the mattress and a small Collins dictionary, there was room by my bed for just a few other books and all were part of a series - Herge's Adventures of Tintin.

The boy reporter with the shock of red hair, faithful white dog Snowy always at his heels, was my hero.

Kind and good-natured, a little naive and freakishly lucky, Tintin roamed the world solving mysteries, searching for jewel thieves and finding lost cities, tailing opium smugglers across Morocco and diving for underwater treasure. I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do.

I became immersed in Herge's world, where the countries of Europe were loosely based on existing territories. I used to delight in making connections between the real and the imaginary.

Just as with the atlas, Tintin and his adventures made me determined that I would explore. And now as a youngish reporter myself, I am lucky enough to travel the world. And sometimes I think back to how the seven-year-old would answer the question, "what do you want to be when you grow up," with "astronaut" because it seemed infinitely more realistic that I'd walk on the moon than be a journalist travelling the world.

Now after a week doing what I'm privileged to do, writing about a Railbookers train trip across Europe from Zurich through Switzerland, Koblenz and Cologne in Germany - once just place names on paper I'd dreamt of visiting - I find myself in Tintin's birthplace, Brussels.

As luck would have it, my north Brussels hotel is just streets away from the Belgian Comic Strip Centre, a repository of all things Tintin, and while it is not exactly a pilgrimage, I know I must visit.

So I pack my cameras, notebook and pens into my satchel, brush my shock of brown hair and bound out into the cool Brussels air cursing that I've left my Tintin in Vietnam shirt at home.

But my sleuthing is a bit rusty for I walk right past the building. In my defence, even our hero would have required the eagle-eyed perception of Snowy to save his embarrassment, so well concealed in a side street is the beautiful old Art Nouveau building.

But true to Tintin's good nature, I manage to turn a bad situation into a good one, handing over a euro to a very grateful man who hasn't the change to pay for his parking ticket. Once inside I realise I've thoroughly underestimated the influence Belgian comics have had on my viewing habits. The centre was set up in 1989 thanks largely to the efforts of enthusiasts and there are areas dedicated to other well-known comics such as The Smurfs. I can't think of any of my childhood friends who didn't delight in seeing Peyo's little blue creatures frustrate the evil Gargamel and his cat Azrael.

But it's Tintin I've come to see. And he's very much the star of the centre.

A wooden replica of the red-and-white rocket from the 1953 adventure Destination Moon stands at the foot of the stairs. Opposite, is a portrait of Herge with a stone bust of Tintin.

As I wander the gallery it occurs to me that the work of the journalist is not dissimilar to that of Herge, himself a reporter.

After all, we are both just telling tales, setting up a narrative with villains and heroes in a setting. There's an introduction, conflict and an ending. It's basic storytelling. Through words and photographs or, in Herge's case, illustrations.

Three almost life-sized orange jumpsuited figurines of Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock seem to usher me upstairs and I climb to find storyboards showing how Herge positioned his hero as a blank canvas, a neutral face on which the reader could daub their own emotion. Initially, at least, Tintin was created as a lens onto the world, a pure and unadulterated view, albeit of Herge's reality of the planet. Another board shows Tintin in all manner of disguises with the simple addition of a hat, facial colouring, glasses or a lady's wig (I knew I forgot something).

"If Tintin is everyone," the board reads, "he is also you". It feels like a personal address. To the right, Captain Haddock, the drunken sailor, is described as "seething with emotion". He is a juxtaposition to Tintin but I've always found him indiscreet and annoying and skip past him to Professor Calculus - "the spark for Tintin's adventures" - and finally to Snowy.

Ah, dear Snowy. If he'd been at my heels, I'd have found this centre the first time and he'd probably have sniffed out a back way in. Not that I'd have taken it - Tintin is far too virtuous for that.

Snowy is described as "a real hero who almost always saves the day". Never a truer word spoken and, I think, a sentiment that will resonate with all who have spent time with a dog and thought it the best company of all.

Herge published 23 Tintin adventures between 1930-76 (another was released posthumously) and as an adult I can see how they reflected the age, promoting a Western capitalist ideology. Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was published in 1930 and is essentially anti-Communist propaganda, although Herge later dismissed it as "a transgression of my youth", while Cigars of the Pharoahs came out in 1934 with Egyptology still in the public consciousness and Destination Moon precedes the early years of the Space Race.

But I didn't really think of any of this as a seven-year-old - to me, these were just great adventures that never quite seemed possible.

Opposite the story boards is a pretty impressive display of Tintin memorabilia, the kind of thing that wows enthusiasts and impresses no-one else. Think hand puppets, jigsaws, stamps, passports, playing cards and, of course, old and valuable comic editions. But while the centre might do enough to hold the attention of the fan, for the casual visitor a little more interactivity is required.

Although Tintin was a boy reporter, he was still fond of a drink, particularly Loch Lomond whisky, so I don't think it would be too out of character to head to the Belgian Beer Museum - after all, it's only down the road. I'm as fond of a beer as an adult as I was of Tintin as a child although I think I make a better journalist than brewer after my last failed attempt almost saw me electrocuted.

Anyway, I like the symmetry.

On the way, I wander a little, stopping off to photograph the Gothic St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral which has a clean, milky-stone facade that belies its age. I stop off for a souvenir magnet and pen as is customary on these adventures.

And then I follow the slope down to the Grasmarkt, a tight square with a fountain at its centre which is bounded by restaurants and beer cafes.

But I continue down the Rue De La Colline past more cafes and perfumeries and am dazzled when the alley opens, quite unexpectedly, on to Brussels' masterpiece the Grand Place - a square of great beauty, surrounded by buildings adorned with statues and carvings.

On all sides the facades seem so high as to close out the sun but light bounces off the stone, dazzling me for an instant and I recall Marlow, in Conrad's Heart of Darkness describing the sight as "a white sepulchre". In front of me, the City Hall rises almost 100m and is garnished with the statue of the patron saint of Brussels, the archangel Michael.

At my back is the single-steepled King's House built by the Duke of Brabant in the 1500s and on either side I'm flanked by guildhouses which, to this day, are a grand show of the wealth once held by the city's brewers and lacemakers.

In the middle, chaos ensues. Among the plant sellers and postcard painters, waffle-bearing tourists stumble into each other's photographs while a student group in leotards and green antlers clap and sing in Flemish as they traipse across the cobbles, continuing the age-old tradition of European squares as places of protest.

Heavy machinery adds to the tumult, as a crane is being forced to the top of a steeple for a delicate cleaning job.

Despite the noise, I'm really glad I've wandered in, but in the spirit of goodwill and honesty that Herge hoped to imbue in Tintin, I have a confession to make. I haven't found the brewer's museum and I probably won't. I'm enjoying the scene from a wooden bench at the front of Le Roy D'Espagne, a restaurant in front of the old baker's guildhouse which dates back to 1697. Above me is a bust of King Charles II of Spain who once ruled these parts and gave the restaurant its name, as well as a statue of St Aubert, the patron saint of bakers, which is currently being kept company by a pigeon. And I've ordered a glass of Leffe blonde and a plate of Flemish beef in dark beer gravy with frites on the side.

It's delicious and seems a fitting end to this story and a little nod to a seven-year-old with an atlas who never quite thought this could happen.

Just as I'm finishing my lunch my mum texts. Before she was married, she worked for UNESCO and lived for 18 months in Brussels. Her text reads: "My old hunting ground, never would have thought my own son would also be working there all these years later xxxx."


Railbookers organise bespoke train holidays throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Travellers can choose trips of any duration and with any combination of cities. Railbookers organises tickets on services that connect efficiently as well as comfortable accommodation near to each railway station, brochures and information to help get the most out of a city stay. The group has offices in Sydney and London. and 1300 938 534.

The Belgian Comic Strip Centre is at Rue des Sables 20, Brussels. Entry is €8 ($9.83).

Le Roy D'Espagne is at Grand Place to the right of the City Hall.

Niall McIlroy visited Brussels as a guest of Railbookers.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save