Most people didn’t question me as to why I wanted to go to Brussels. One or two asked me, probably because they’d sooner spend the entire week in Paris. I understood that. I always wanted to go to Brussels, and even on this trip it was my first thought after planning the concert. I wanted to go to Brussels.
Why? Well, because I wanted to visit a couple of museums while I was there, as well as wander around the city that paid loving tribute to my most favorite comic book of all time. The Adventures of Tintin.
Not Rin Tin Tin. Tintin.
Despite the release of the Stephen Spielberg/Peter Jackson film a few years ago, Americans still do not know, nor understand, the sheer magic and appeal of Tintin.
Tintin was described as a boy reporter who had an insatiable curiosity and a talent for detective work. He was much smarter and wiser than the adults around him.
Part of what made The Adventures of Tintin so appealing were the adventures he went on. When Spielberg was touring Europe with his first Indiana Jones film, comparisons were made to Tintin. He had no idea at the time who Tintin was, but he soon found out and that’s how The Secret of the Unicorn came to be.
The comparison was only half-right, however. Tintin definitely had the action/adventure connection, as well as the world travelling that Indiana had, plus the comedy, but that’s where the similarity ended.
Tintin had one more element that made the story complete, extremely strong, endearing human characters, and plenty of integrity. That always resonated with me, even at that young age.
I discovered Tintin in Hong Kong in 1975 when I was 8 years-old. As a child I looked up to my brother and always wanted to do what he did, including read his magazines. He loved getting MAD Magazine and I loved reading them, but he didn’t love how I’d almost destroy them. So after a while I got tired of him nagging me about it and I wanted my own magazine to read.
Across from where we lived was a supermarket called Park’n Shop. Their downstairs was a favorite venue for my brother, our friends and I, as the room was filled with toys, games, books and magazines. It was also where my brother got his MADs. So I went down there one day to look through the racks where the MADs were to find MY magazine. Mine mine mine.
I found The Crab with the Golden Claws. I picked it up and paged through it and knew I wanted it. One problem. MADs were selling for 60 cents. This book cost 6 Hong Kong dollars. I needed my mother to buy it for me, as I didn’t have an allowance and did not have that kind of money on hand. Plus, I didn’t want to buy it without her permission. Fortunately, she was upstairs shopping so I asked her to come downstairs so that I could show it to her. It took some begging, as she was reluctant, but she eventually agreed to buy it and I got to take home my first Adventures of Tintin book.
I fell in love with it. I read it over and over. Sometimes my brother would sit with me and we would read it aloud in character. I was Tintin and he was Captain Haddock. I loved it.
Soon I was able to get more books. I had about four books (out of twenty-two) by the time we left Hong Kong to return to the states. By the time we got to the US about a month later, I had two more that I picked up in India and Italy.
Sadly, I couldn’t find Tintin in the US. It took many years before I finally discovered one or two at a bookstore. Then in 1993, HBO aired a cartoon series of The Adventures of Tintin. I was thrilled. It was very good, although they didn’t use the entire story, because they were only 30 minute episodes.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990’s that I finally found the rest of the books and completed my collection. Soon Tintin boutiques popped up in New York and San Francisco. When I was visiting a friend in San Fran in 1997, I had gone to the store twice.
When I learned there was one in London, I would stop there whenever I was in the neighborhood.
During those early years, no one knew of Tintin. One of my friends thought I was talking about Rin Tin Tin and she thought she was doing me a favor buying me a box set of the show about a dog. She soon learned who he was and when she went to Belgium last year, she bought me a lovely Tintin keychain.
So now it was my turn to visit Belgium where they have special market days honoring Tintin, and a museum devoted to the author, Herge.
Trivia: Herge’s real name was George Remi. He took his initials, GR and reversed them to RG. In French RG is pronounced “air-jay”, change the spelling and a name was born.
So that is why I wanted to go to Belgium.
On Thursday, September 18th I had breakfast at the hotel, checked out of my room and headed to the Paris Nord train station to catch the Thalys to Brussels. Once again I had arrived early, unsure of what to expect. I stood for a while near the large departures sign and people watched until I saw an opening to sit down in the waiting area. One thing that caught my eye was a unique charging station for cellular phones and other devices. It was pedal powered. I thought that was very interesting. Not only is it energy efficient, but a great exercise to boot. Just don’t call your loved one or business colleague while you’re cycling or they’ll think you’re being chased.
At first I was surprised to see no security checkpoints along the entrances to the platforms. Then I figured that it had something to do with both France and Belgium being a part of the European Union. So they no longer need to check passports between countries. It’s similar to the US when we travel from state to state. There are no checkpoints, no border security to worry about.
After a couple of hours I boarded the train. I sat backwards once again, but it wasn’t a problem.
I arrived in Brussels around 1pm and took the Metro to the NH Atlanta Brussels hotel. The map was a lot easier to understand and I was able to find the platform without a problem. I got to the hotel in about ten minutes. I knew my room wouldn’t be ready, but I checked in anyway and had them hold my bags. The man at the front desk told me my suite was not ready yet.
“Suite?” I thought to myself.
It turns out that when I booked the room on Hotels.com the only available room I could choose that accepted refunds was a suite. The price was nice, so I didn’t pay attention to the type or room except to read that it had a double bed and a sofa. When I realized it was a suite, I wasn’t going to complain. I thought it would be nice to end the vacation in style.
After I handed over my luggage I headed to The Grand Place, a large square in the center of town. I was surprised to find how close it was to the hotel. As a matter of fact this city is very walkable. I never think about checking the scale on maps, so when I looked at Brussels on a map before my trip I thought things would be much farther than they actually were. I was wrong. In fact, when I had planned my trip I had booked a different hotel, the Crown Plaza, but then I thought it would be too far away. It turned out that hotel was only a couple of blocks up from the NH Atlanta Brussels, where I was staying. Still, there was road construction in front of the Crown Plaza, so in the end I was better off.
What I really liked about the city were the cobblestone streets that surrounded The Grand Place. They were closed to vehicles, and loaded with pedestrians, shops and restaurants. It had so much character. I loved it. I went there every day during my stay.
I wandered around those streets my first day there and happened upon a few other sites I had hoped to see. One was Manneken Pis, a small statue of a cherub, peeing. He was a lot smaller than I realized. I thought he’d be at least 2 feet tall. From the distance I stood he seemed to be less than a foot.
One thing I didn’t expect to find so easily was right behind me as I stood by the Manneken Pis. I had heard that one of the things Brussels did to honor their rich comic book history (the Smurfs came from there as well), was to paint murals all over town of scenes from these famous stories. So imagine my surprise when I turned around and there was a Tintin mural on the wall of a building just down the street from the Manneken Pis. Another item checked off the list.
I decided to track down the Hop-on-Hop-Off Bus. I went to the visitor’s center where they told me where to find its main stop. While I was there I picked up a couple of walking tour maps of the city, one with a Tintin theme and one with a comic book theme, then I headed up to the Central Bus Station.
It turns out they had two routes. I decided I was mainly interested in getting to the Automium, which was not within walking distance as the other sites were. I was slightly disappointed in the bus tour as there weren’t many sites to see along the way. I came to the conclusion the other route was possibly more interesting, given the listing of sites it covered, so I had to decide for the next day if I was going to get a ticket for the other route.
The Automium was built in the late 1950’s to coincide with the 1958 World’s Fair. It’s in the shape of an atom, and it’s made with aluminum, hence the name. The top sphere held the observation deck. From there I descended to the other spheres where they had exhibits and a history of the Automium. The tour took roughly an hour. Afterward I waited for the bus. And waited. And waited.
Most Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus Tours state that a bus would arrive every ten minutes. We waited ninety minutes for this bus to arrive. Ninety minutes I could have used to walk back to my hotel. I was very disappointed. I decided not to take the other bus the next day. I didn’t need to. As I said, the city was easily walkable.
When I finally got back to the city, I headed back to the hotel. I had to wait a while to get up to my room, as the cleaning crew were in a meeting and had to do one more check of the room before they opened it up for the next guest. The wait was worth it.
I had expected a small living room with a smaller bedroom off of it. The place was huge. I was the size of my old apartment. The only thing missing was a kitchen. It was very nice.
I ordered room service and found the food to be excellent. They gave enormous portions. The salad alone could have been the meal. I was pleasantly surprised.
I charted my route for the next day and watched TV. No BBC Red Button at this hotel, but they did have an interesting array of French, German, Italian, Asian and Arabic channels, as well as a few English ones. I watched the Italian version of Deal or No Deal, mainly because I knew the host from an Italian TV show (Don Matteo) that I had watched a few times back in the US (with subtitles). It was funny seeing him clown around. It was very different than his character from the show. What was even funnier was that he left the program because he preferred to host game shows instead.
The next morning I went to the top floor breakfast room where they had a lovely patio overlooking the city. I had a quick breakfast and headed on my trek. My first stop was the Belgian Comic Strip Center. It was only a couple of blocks from the hotel. On the way I encountered a lovely square called Place des Martyrs.
When I entered the Comic Strip Center there was a large spaceship in the hallway from the Tintin book titled “Explorers to the Moon”. Upstairs by the registration desk there were lifesize statues of Tintin, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and Snowy. I knew I was going to enjoy this.
The museum has an extensive collection covering at roughly a century’s worth (maybe more) of comic art. Tintin emerged in the late 1920’s, so imagine what predated that.
I wandered all the rooms, and explored all the exhibits. I was pleased to find a whole section devoted to Tintin. Photographs were allowed, so I snapped pictures of the timelines and backgrounds of the characters, plus took some fun selfies next to life-size cutouts of the characters.
I wandered around a while longer, taking in everything in the museum and the gift shop, where I bought a couple of postcards, and headed out to my next destination. The Royal Palace. Along the way I passed St. Michael’s Church which had architecture reminiscent of Notre Dame in Paris. I made my way to a beautiful park called Parc de Bruxelles Warandepark. I walked around there for a while and snapped some photographs. It’s a truly lovely place. Then I headed for the Palace which was at one end of the Park. They had a free exhibition inside. I contemplated going, but decided not to. I didn’t know how much time it would take me to get to the other places on my itinerary, so I passed. The building was very impressive from the outside, as were the others surrounding the other sides of the park.
I continued walking toward my next destination, La Grande Sablon, when I happened upon this beautiful square. In the center was a statue of Godefroid de Bouillon or Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the leaders of the first Crusade. The architecture surrounding the square was very nice to say the least. Just off of the main road was another palace. This one was called La Maison de Lorraine or Palace of Charles du Lorraine. It was impressive. I had no idea of these places. Granted, I didn’t do a thorough research of the city, but when I checked whatever guide I could find on top places to see, the only things mentioned were The Grand Place, The Belgian Comic Book Center, the murals and Manneken Pis. So I felt a little bit like the “intrepid explorer” as Tintin was often nicknamed, discovering these hidden treasures of Brussels.
I ventured back on my path stopped at a very nice park and then down to The Grand Sablon, which consists of some nice shops and restaurants. One in particular was the Comics Café. That was my next stop in my Tintin expedition. Just outside was a large statue of Tintin and his faithful dog Snowy (or Milou in French). I asked if I could sit outside near the statue. I had a nice lunch there, consisting of a burger with eggplant and mozzarella cheese. It was very good. Afterward, I inquired about their gift shop, and was told it was closed. However, the waiter, knowing my interest in Tintin, told me I could walk around the place, as they had many rooms filled with Tintin related items. So I did.
He wasn’t kidding. The place was like a museum, a veritable homage to Tintin. What’s more, Herge knew the owner, so there were some really special items hanging on the walls from pencil sketches to autographed original master pages from his books, which were ten times the size of the published novels. One room had them all over the walls. This was probably better than the exhibits I saw at the Comic Center or the next day at the Herge Museum, although I do look back fondly at both experiences as well.
I left the Comics Café, thanking the waiter for allowing me to take a tour inside, then headed toward The Grand Place and back to my hotel. It being Friday night, the streets were mobbed with people. One thing caught my eye as I wandered around. There was a pushcart selling food. Not unusual, right? Well how about some escargot? Yes, a pushcart selling snails cooked in garlic. I never thought of escargot as fast food, but there you are.
Lunch had filled me up considerably even hours later. However, I knew I’d get hungry at some point, and I wanted to make sure I had three things in Brussels while I was there. One was a Belgian Waffle. Another was their pommes frites, which I did have with my burger at the café. The third thing was mussels. I love mussels. I haven’t had them in years, so I thought it would be nice, but I wasn’t hungry enough for them. Dinner time arrived and I still wasn’t hungry enough for the mussels. So I settled for a waffle instead. I decided not to get one too overloaded, opting for a more conservative one that had chocolate oozed over it. It wasn’t bad. As I ate I planned for the next day’s meal, hoping I’d finally have some mussels soon enough.
The only plan I had for Saturday was to go to the Herge Museum. This was at 2pm. So I killed time by sleeping in and hanging around the hotel. While I sat in the lobby I spotted a little girl holding a very large stuffed animal of Tintin’s dog Snowy. I thought that was cute considering where I was going.
Since the museum was forty-five minutes outside the city, and since I chose not to rent a car, I saw that the museum had a deal with a local tour company to provide transportation to the museum. I had thought that included some sort of guided tour along the way, but it strictly was transportation. The driver was nice enough. The ride was expected to take 45 minutes, but since I was the only passenger and there weren’t many cars on the road, we practically flew there in half-an-hour. I had two hours for the tour inside the museum. I hoped it would be enough time.
The cost of the bus ride included the ticket for the museum (Brussels City Tours was the bus operator in case you’re interested). I took their audio guide and made my way starting from the top floor and working my way down, going through all the rooms. I tend to be a quick observer in museums in general, so I stopped using the audio guide after a while, as many of the exhibits were in English as well as French.
It was nice learning about Herge’s early life and what influenced his characters. I also learned more about his work and the creative team that he employed. It was fascinating.
Photographs were not allowed, but I knew that ahead of time, so it wasn’t a problem. I managed to complete the exhibit and tour the gift shop with fifteen minutes to spare. I walked out of the museum, not expecting to see my bus driver, and I didn’t, but he saw me, because within minutes he pulled up and we were off again, back to Brussels in record time.
My only disappointment with the Herge related items in the gift shops was that not all were in English. He had other comic books in his lifetime that I would love to read, but since they didn’t have the international appeal Tintin did, there is no English language version as far as I could tell. They did have all the English volumes of Tintin as well as the biographies that have been distributed in the US since the mid-1990’s, but there were other books that were exclusively in French, and that was a shame.
I almost bought Tintin bandages, but passed.
That night I wandered around the crowded streets debating whether I wanted mussels (mussels in Brussels). I passed several outdoor restaurants and peeked at people’s tables. The servings were enormous. I know that a dish of mussels can be quite big, but these were huge. I wasn’t sure if I would finish them. I didn’t want to waste food and I had no idea what restaurant to try, so I decided to play it safe and not attempt it. I wound up going back to the hotel and ordering room service. Then I packed for my trip back home.
All in all, I think I did very well on my trip, and would do something similar again. I enjoyed taking the trains and seeing the cities at my own pace. A guided tour of both cities combined would have been exhaustive and that’s just not for me. I really enjoyed this and would definitely do it again with other cities.
More photos from Brussels.