And that’s not just because of Belgium’s proud cycling history or its current outstanding crop of footballers. I can think of a couple of tennis stars (Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin), one pop singer (remember Plastic Bertrand?), a map-maker (Mercator’s projection is the world we all know), and a catalogue of painters from the Brueghels to Magritte.
Then, of course, there’s that trio of brilliant investigators, Poirot, Maigret and Tintin. Probably the most famous Belgians of all – and all of them fictional.
I have little interest in the improbable workings of Agatha Christie’s little grey cells. Maigret is more plausible and engaging, his settings and psychology grittier and more real – but, let’s face it, Simenon rather churned them out too.
But Tintin… I’ve been a fan for more than 50 years.
It’s probably fair to say his creator Hergé (a truly great Belgian) did more to form my world view more than any other writer except Shakespeare. And since I was still in my earlier formative years when the Tintin bug bit me, he may even have the edge over the Bard.
It’s undoubtedly down to the depictions in ‘Prisoners of the Sun’ and ‘Tintin in Tibet’ that Peru and the Himalayas have been on my want-to-visit list for as long as I can remember. And yet at the same time (since I haven’t yet visited either) retained in my mind a sense of unreality – or perhaps hyper-reality.
Tintin’s support for the underdog, his habit of going to the rescue of small, picked-on African, Indian, Chinese or Peruvian children, sets a great example.
As great as his habit of helping out countries threatened by aggressive neighbours. China in the 1930s under Japanese domination in ‘The Blue Lotus’. Syldavia menaced by Borduria in ‘King Ottokar’s Sceptre’.
Hergé was accused, unfairly, after the Second World War of collaborating with the Nazis. Yes, he went on working after Belgium fell under Nazi occupation. Most people who could, did. As would be the case in any country under such circumstances.
His critics tend to overlook the bravery of writing – in 1938 and 1939, up to the very brink of war – a story pitting brave peasants against the grey-uniformed aggression of a military predator.
Syldavia is a blatant amalgam of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. Borduria is plainly Germany. Its brutal leader Musstler is part Mussolini, part Hitler.
The symbolism, and the satire, could hardly have been plainer. At that time, and in a little country which had been brutally invaded by the Germans less than 25 years earlier, it was a remarkable book for a children’s author to produce.
No one, surely, could deny that Hergé was a brilliant artist, a brilliant evoker of exotic places and a brilliant creator of characters and character comedy. And from admittedly rather ropy beginnings, he improved quickly and went on improving.
The fact that Tintin himself is something of a blank at the centre makes it easier for readers to put themselves in his place, fulfilling many a fantasy - as surely he did for Hergé himself. And it serves to highlight the cast of glorious characters he is surrounded by - his irrepressible, ever-faithful dog Snowy, the irascible Captain Haddock, the inept Thompson twins, the crazed genius Professor Calculus.
The naked and simplistic anti-Communist propaganda of his first adventure, 'Tintin in the Land of the Soviets', the racist portrayal of Africans in 'Tintin in the Congo' and the 'comic' savaging of wild animals in the same book are embarrassing today. But no more embarrassing than they soon were to Hergé.
In both books he was collaborating - with the crypto-fascist editor of the paper that employed him.
He was just 21 when the Soviets story was published, 22 when the Congo adventure appeared. Both merely repeated the prejudices prevalent in his society at the time - and he quickly outgrew them. He described both as "youthful indiscretions" and for most of his life they were not re-published.
I have come late to these early stories. My single-volume copy of the pair of them came wrapped in a warning that “some people might find the portrayal of African characters offensive”. Any decent person would, frankly – except that any value the books have now is historical.
It is interesting to Tintin fans to see his origins, to realise how rapidly he would develop. And they are interesting as a snapshot of European attitudes of the time – which was 1928-1930.
Within a few years Hergé himself came to see those attitudes as archaic, ignorant and bigoted – as they were. Will many of today’s common opinions – on the subject of immigrants, for example – seem any more enlightened when we come to look back in a few years? Somehow I don’t think they will.