In Search of Smurfs
Saturday May 17, 2003, National Post
by Matt Beam

SOMETHING SMURFY: The Belgian Centre of Comic Strip Art tells the story of the history of the comic strip.

   They caught my eye as I browsed the travel guide before my trip. I daydreamed about their peculiar blueness as I flew across the Atlantic. I tried hard not to compare them to Superman as I went faster than a normal speeding train on Air France's Paris-Brussels Thalys (TGV) train connection. As I stepped out of Central Station in Brussels, I told myself I was doing this storied, bicultural capital a great disservice by keeping them in mind. As it turned out, though, my fascination was warranted: They wanted me to find them.
   The Smurfs, known in Belgium as les Schtroumpfs, the comic strip personalities-cum-cartoon-characters-cum-collector's-figurines, originated in this country. In 1952, Pierre Culliford, a.k.a Peyo, created a poetical medieval comic strip series called Johan and Peewit. Six years later, Johan, a castle's pageboy, and Peewit, a midget, managed the impossible: They were invited into the hidden mushroom village of the Smurfs. During the next 30 years, the rest of Europe was let in on the secret, and by the mid-1980s, North American children were watching the Smurfs as they struggled to remain hidden from their sorcerer enemy, Gargamel, and his fiendish cat, Azreal.
As I walked through St-Gilles suburb on the south side of town, I felt like a cultural Gargamel, obsessing over Smurfs when there was a beautiful city to be seen.
   My first stop was the museum and former home of the famous art nouveau architect, Victor Horta. There's nothing quite like architectural splendour and the passion of a well-heeled tour guide to snap you out of your Smurfiness. With the projection of a tenor and the high step of a soldier, the goateed guide took me through the 1901 home, and in so doing, walked me through a period of the city's architectural history.
   Even for an architectural novice, it is impossible not to marvel at the buildings in Brussels. Step into the cobblestone La Grand-Place in the historically French, Lower village and be overwhelmed by edifice. Here, baroque churches and gilded facades demand your attention, as do the ornate houses with inset stone statuettes, which emerge as if they were carved from the facade itself.
In the Dutch Upper town, witness the majestic, gothic churches, heroic green statues and monumental palaces, such as the 18th-century Palais Royal.
   And so, the Victor Horta's Art Nouveau Museum was perfect for my purposes: to rid my mind of Smurfs and to understand just a fraction of my spectacular surroundings. I learned about art nouveau, the organic style influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement of the 1880s. Victor Horta attempted to achieve "maximum fluidity" using ornate caste ironwork, rounded stained-glass windows and tiled floors.
   On the main floor of his house, I witnessed the Whiplash motif, the fluid design in Horta's work. Both in the dining room and veranda, tendril-like swirls are found everywhere -- on the corners of pine dining room cabinets, in mosaic patterns on the ceramic floor, even within the twisted brass of a door handle.
   On the second floor, I was enlightened by Horta's other obsession: a desire for airy, sun-filled spaces. The yellow, stained-glass ceiling above an open three-storey stairwell was moving. I was feeling significantly less "blue" when I reached the top of the stairs.
Then, my fastidious guide turned to ask: "Have you been to le Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée to see the Ninth Art?"
I shook my head. The Ninth Art? I wondered
He cleared his throat. "Em ...The Belgian Centre of Comic Strip Art. It was designed by Victor Horta. You really must see it."
   He said nothing about les Schtroumpfs, but there was definitely something Smurfy about the way he mentioned the museum. It was all I needed to get back on my nostalgic, pop culture trail.
As I made my way down narrow, cobblestone streets toward Grand-Place, I saw a building covered by a comic strip mural. I later learned there is a trail of these, 18 in all, across the city. I could not see any Smurfs in the mural, but that did not mean they were not there.
At the bottom of rue de l'Etuve, I came upon Manneken Pis, the peeing urchin statuette understood to represent the rebellious, yet fun-loving spirit of Brussels. There was definitely something Smurfy about him.
   Looking for some inspiration on my trek to Grand-Place, I stopped for a Chimay, a Trapiste monastery beer (one of 100 types of Belgian beer) on the patio of Le Roi l'Espagne. As I sipped, I daydreamed about Gargamel's monkish robe.
   Renewed by pious brew, I looked at my city map and headed northwest toward the museum. On rue de Colline, I was drawn toward the entrance of a towering arcade, Galerie St. Hubert.
Inside, I marvelled at its high, vaulted glass roof and its high-end shops. Finally, I came out the other side and continued northwest. Before I knew it, I had arrived at le Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée: the Belgian Centre of Comic Strip Art.
   I recognized Victor Horta's light as it poured down from the atrium of what was once a fabric warehouse, but I was after something else.
   On the museum's trail of displays, I was quickly drawn in by the profound and colourful history of the Belgium comic strip. After learning about the process and principles of the comic strip, I focused my energies on finding a Smurf.
   Half an hour later, after being happily delayed by the Tintin display, the comic strip character created by George Remi (whose nom de plume was Hergé), I finally found my Smurf. He was hidden in a corner alone on the third floor.
   I grinned - not because I had found my Smurf, but because in the course of my search I had discovered the beauty of Brussels. Only Gargamel could have missed it.


TRAVEL Air France offers one flight a day from Toronto to Paris/Brussels. The regular fare is about $1,419.

VICTOR HORTA MUSEUM Open 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday; five euros.

BELGIUM CENTRE OF COMIC STRIP ART Open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; 6,20 euros for adults, 2,50 for children

ROYAL WINDSOR HOTEL 5 Rue Duquesnoy (steps from Grand-Place and the train station); tel 02 505 5555; rates from 250 to 650 euros a night

For more details on travel to Brussels, go to /cbbd.htm

© Copyright 2003 National Post