Friday, 26 November 2010

Travels in Tintinland

I was reading Asterix and Tintin before I could read. In fact, I probably learned to read in large part thanks to Asterix. Tintin was a little more complicated, with the result that my appreciation for Hergé's oeuvre has grown with time, whereas I now find Asterix a bit childish (though still perfectly enjoyable).

The upshot of which was, when I found out they had opened a new Hergé museum just outside Brussels, I had to go. To be honest, it was my last choice in the list of progressively closer holiday destinations to celebrate my 40th (which had to be delayed until I got a job). Top of the list was Japan, then Bucharest, then Budapest, then Munich, and only then Brussels. Now that we've managed to finally fit in Brussels, maybe we can continue the list in reverse.

Brussels turned to be grottier than expected (we've been spending too much time in France, raising expectations). It was vaguely post-Sovietique. Lots of 90s architecture seemingly built by engineers without any aesthetic sense whatsoever. Particularly the European parliament. Whereas the European commission tries to be a bristling contemporary architectural statement (saying exactly what, I'm not sure). Add to that the medieval Grande Place for the tourists, a smattering of hulking 1930s national socialist monsters, and a few Art Nouveau gems (Brussels was arguably the home of Art Nouveau architecture, a fact they don't seem to celebrate as much as one would expect, probably because they are embarassed about pulling down some of the best examples in the 1960s), topped off by the atomium, and you end up with a surreal mixture of styles. Which is only fitting for the home of the surrealist master Margritte.

Atomium, viewed from mini Europe

The BD trail adds to the surreal atmosphere - every corner you turn, it seems, you come upon murals of famous comic characters. We didn't manage to seem them all, but we did check out the Tintin mural at the Stockel metro station.

The Hergé museum was in one of the most surreal places of all - one of those awful planned cement new towns, completely without trees or any other greenery. However, the museum was brilliant, and also we managed to pick up some Belgian beer at a shop near the train station at vastly cheaper prices than in the tourist trap across from the Mannekin Pis.

Before you think I am complaining too much, I should say that we had a wonderful time in Brussels, where we scored the most fabulous hotel room/apartment ever (in a REALLY grotty part of town, but who cares, it was cheap, convenient, and enormous), enjoyed fabulous Belgian beer (including a beer I last had at the Brickskeller in DC in the early 2000s, and have been searching for ever since), and got a lot of use out of the metro and train system (which although relatively grotty, was significantly cheaper and more punctual than the London underground). I'm quite tempted to go back, because although we did manage to see most of what the town has to offer, we missed the Victor Horta museum and a number of his still surviving art nouveau buildings (which are apparently in an even more grotty neighborhood that the ones we visited). Also, I didn't have a single piece of Belgian chocolate!