This year marks the 75th anniversary of Hergé's cartoon hero. Cathy Packe follows the boy reporter's footsteps from Brussels to Shanghai

The image of Tintin that is conjured up at the beginning of his fourth adventure, Cigars of the Pharaoh, is a rare one. He is enjoying a quiet holiday, leaning over the side of his ocean liner and contemplating a trip ashore to Port Said and later Istanbul. A map of the Mediterranean marks his route: Piraeus, Naples, Marseilles and home through the straits of Gibraltar. Tintin is looking forward to a marvellous cruise; Snowy, his fox terrier, reckons the trip will be as dull as ditchwater.

Luckily for Snowy, these idle moments spent gazing out to sea don't last long. Tintin has a knack of getting caught up in adventures - foreign scenery is part of the experience but not the point of the journey. Tintin is no tourist - he is a top reporter, representing his newspaper and keeping his readers up to date with foreign affairs. A total of 23 foreign assignments take him from the Scottish highlands via Tibet to Tapiocapolis - a city that bears a strong resemblance to Brazil's Belo Horizonte.

Tintin's creator was Georges Remi - known around the world as Hergé (his initials reversed and pronounced in French). He was a clerk who became an illustrator, and he was commissioned to produce a weekly children's supplement in a Catholic newspaper, published in Brussels, called Le Petit Vingtième. The supplement was first published on 1 November 1928, but it became cult reading when Tintin appeared on 10 January 1929. Hergé took his inspiration from America where cartoon strips were all the rage, and produced a serialised tale using a new technique in which the characters' words came directly out of their mouths.

The cartoon journalist's first assignment saw Tintin venturing overland to the USSR, in a story that reflected western criticism of the recently-established Soviet regime. After changing trains in Berlin he embarks on a breathless adventure via a border town called Stolbtzy. During the trip he observes burning straw made to look like the smokestacks of factories running at full capacity, is followed by secret agents and exposes the foul deeds of the Bolshevik high command.

Tintin's travels were rarely relaxing. His destinations were sometimes the same as those of contemporary tourists, but while other visitors to Cairo viewed the pyramids, he pursued opium smugglers, and while the more intrepid trans-Atlantic tourist might have seen Niagara or New York, Tintin tangled with Al Capone in Chicago.

Little trace remains of the cartoon journalist across the Atlantic, but Switzerland has embraced the cult of Tintin. The Hotel Cornavin in Geneva was lovingly drawn by Hergé in The Calculus Affair, his cartoon version of the building bearing more than a passing resemblance to a photo of the original that was found in Hergé's archive. Professor Calculus stayed in room 122 on the fourth floor - modern guests can still book the room although it no longer looks the same. The hotel is happy to acknowledge its role in Tintin's career, and has placed a life-size cardboard Tintin mannequin in the foyer. Tintin flew into Geneva's Cointrin Airport on a flight with Sabena, the Belgian airline, and Hergé took great care to depict the terminal building, and the plane on which Tintin arrived, with the utmost accuracy.

The Congo, location for the second Tintin adventure, would not have been Hergé's choice, but his editor decided that this Belgian colony was in need of publicity. The young journalist was duly dispatched to busy himself with big-game hunting and a quest for diamonds.

Some of Tintin's destinations were fictitious, as with the eastern European kingdom of Syldavia, which features as the backdrop to the story of King Ottokar's Sceptre. The search for the stolen royal sceptre, belonging to the Syldavian king, disguises a story of fascist aggression towards a small country. Serialised in 1938, the story mirrors the annexation of Austria by Germany and foreshadows the Nazi invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland. In case anyone should have been in any doubt that this was intended as a tale of its times, the villain is called Musstler, a conjunction of Mussolini and Hitler.

Like every good foreign correspondent, Tintin was caught up in some of the important events of the 20th century. In The Blue Lotus he heads for early-1930s Shanghai - a time when its international quarter was run by the British and Americans. The international settlement is still a clearly-defined district of Shanghai, although the only British and Americans in evidence there now are tourists. It is one of the liveliest areas of the city, and covers an area that stretches inland a dozen blocks from the main riverside thoroughfare, the Bund, and from Suzhou Creek, north of the Friendship Store, south as far as the Natural History Museum. This story of drug-smuggling takes as its background the Japanese occupation of parts of China, and an attack on the South Manchurian railway.

Tintin regularly got in ahead of the media pack - in two adventures he travelled to the moon, taking his first steps on its surface in 1953, 16 years before Neil Armstrong.

While most foreign correspondents might hope to be remembered for the insights their reporting offered, and the pivotal events that they witnessed, Tintin has found a place in history as that rarest of commodities: a famous Belgian. Towards the end of his reporting days his only desire was to return to his home city, Brussels, where he had spent very little time in the course of a career spanning nearly 50 years. But many of his haunts are still easily recognisable in the modern Belgian capital.

Anyone who knows the city will recognise Cinquantenaire park in the opening scenes of King Ottokar's Sceptre; the shops along Avenue Toison d'Or, illustrated in The Red Sea Sharks; and the Gare du Nord, the Brussels station to which he returns after his triumphant first adventure.

The Broken Ear, an adventure in a fictitious South American state, is prompted by the theft of an exhibit from the Museum of Ethnography in Brussels. The city has no such location, but Hergé was inspired by visits to two genuine Brussels collections: the Royal Museums of Art and History, and the Royal Museum of Central Africa. Several of his drawings depict artefacts from these museums.

The Belgian capital has certainly embraced the comic strip as an art form - its walls are festooned with murals depicting famous Belgian cartoons. You can follow a 6km walking tour of the best murals with the help of a route map from the tourist office.

There is a homage to Tintin and his creator at Stockel subway station on the Brussels underground. Here you can see a 45m-high fresco of all the main characters of the books, including Captain Haddock and the Thompson Twins - Thompson and Thomson - who gave their name to the Eighties band. You can reach the station by riding line 1B eastwards to its conclusion.

There's also a permanent exhibition dedicated to Hergé's career at the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée (Comic Strip Museum), a beautiful Art Nouveau building containing, among other things, a life-size version in the entrance lobby of Tintin and his faithful Snowy.

Hergé's illustrations, that chronicle of Tintin's travels, bear comparison with early holiday photographs. He drew all the cartoons himself, taking great trouble to make sure that what he was depicting was accurate, and while many of the illustrations may look like quick sketches, they were all carefully researched. City scenes, weapons, planes, boats and trains were drawn from photos, and Hergé amassed a huge archive of catalogues, newspaper cuttings and pictures. While some of the destinations may have been fictitious and the adventures fanciful, Tintin was firmly rooted in reality.

The celebrations of the 75th anniversary of Tintin's first adventure are extending well beyond the borders of Belgium. In Holland's lovely university city, Leiden, the Royal Museum of Ethnology has an exhibition on Tintin and the Incas. In Britain, Tintin memorabilia will be on display at a special exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich devoted to the young journalist's adventures at sea. Exhibits will include the oldest drawing of Tintin still in existence and a painting of Hergé by an artist whose work was influenced by the Belgian illustrator: Andy Warhol.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE: TINTIN EXHIBITIONS

NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, GREENWICH

(020-8858 4422, www.nmm.ac.uk) opens 10am-5pm daily. The exhibition, "The Adventures of Tintin at Sea", opens on 31 March, and continues until 5 September. Tickets cost £5, children free.

THE BELGIAN COMIC STRIP MUSEUM

(Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée) is at 20 Rue des Sables, Brussels (00 322 219 1980; www.brusselsbdtour.com) and is open 10am-6pm from Tuesday to Saturday. It contains original drawings by Hergé and other Belgian comic strip artists.

THE ROYAL MUSEUM OF CENTRAL AFRICA

is at 13 Leuvensesteenweg, Tervuren, Brussels (00 322 769 5200; www.africamuseum.be). It opens 10am-5pm from Tuesday to Friday, 10am-6pm Saturday and Sunday; entrance €4 (£2.70).

The Fondation Herge in Brussels is not open to visitors, but runs an archive and website (www.tintin.be) with regularly updated information about Tintin.

THE ROYAL MUSEUM OF ETHNOLOGY

Is at 1 Steenstraat, Leiden (00 3171 516 8800; www.rmv.nl) has an exhibition on "Tintin and the Incas", which continues until 29 August. The museum opens 10am-5pm Tuesday-Sunday, and entrance costs €1.50 (£1).

THE HOTEL CORNAVIN

(00 41 22 716 1212; www.geneve-tourisme.ch) at the Gare Cornavin, Geneva is a recently-refurbished four-star hotel, where double rooms cost SF324 (£140) and singles SF256 (£110).

Additional Research: Ben Ross

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