When I first arrived in Charleroi about six years ago, a Dutch newspaper had just declared the city the ugliest in the world. An accolade that would make every mayor burst with pride. At first glance, the paper’s judgement didn’t seem too far off. The place looked like a bomb filled with litter, sadness and crippling unemployment had just gone off in it. It wasn’t exactly Paris, so to speak. While the more distinguished Carolos – that’s how they call themselves – were obviously not very happy with this newly acquired title, one man decided to make a business out of it. Nicolas Buissart – artist, free spirit and universally acknowledged cool dude – set up a city safari called Charleroi Adventure. It didn’t lead you to the giant pandas in the nearby zoo, but instead took you on an incredible tour of all the most butt-ugly places the city had on offer. And there was a lot to choose from. Rusted factories, empty swimming pools, a stroll on the most depressing street in the country: if you could imagine it, he’d take you there. It turned out to be a fascinating afternoon.
“When I first arrived in Charleroi about six years ago, a Dutch newspaper had just declared the city the ugliest in the world. An accolade that would make every mayor burst with pride.”
Years later, I’m back at the train station waiting for Nico. In my absence, Charleroi went through a little renaissance. New squares were laid out, trendy little restaurants popped up here and there, and a hypermodern mall was constructed smack in the middle of town. The historic centre looks much tidier now. But even with all these novelties, Charleroi Adventure is still going strong. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most exciting, incredible and hilarious tours you can book in Belgium. Do it now, before they actually clean everything up.
1. Take a stroll through an industrial graveyard
Fancy a weird fact? Booyaka! I gotcha buddy! Did you know Charleroi’s population shrunk by around 40,000 heads throughout the last fifty years? Yet it is still the largest city in Wallonia. That’s because in the past – mainly because of the mining and steel industries – it was also the richest. In the 1970s, when heavy industry started taking hits all over Europe, the entire local economy collapsed on itself like a sad soufflé. The result was the highest unemployment rate in the country, a lot of empty buildings and an urbex paradise unparalleled in Belgium. Dozens of abandoned factories and hangars still stand crumbling along the banks of the Sambre today, often decorated with towering, psychedelic graffiti. This makes for an amazingly impressive sight – despite all the social dramas that came with it. This post-apocalyptic Walloon wasteland goes on for miles and will make the average photographer go into an overstimulated frenzy. Highlight of the walk: the giant cooling tower of a former power station. There’s no lock on the door and the interior looks like it came straight out of a Bond movie. Nobody knows how long everything will stay as it is. The city council apparently started to take some action, and seems more inclined to just take the whole thing down instead of doing something useful with it. A couple of factories got bulldozed already. I wouldn’t postpone that visit for too long.
2. Take in some dystopian views
Assuming there aren’t too many geriatric fatsos with a pacemaker in your group, Nico will probably take you to the top of one of the slag heaps on the outskirts of the city. It’s a steep climb, but since the entire goddamn mountain had to be dug up from the literal depths of hell by human hands just so you could stand on it, complaining about the slope would be a rather shitty thing to do. The view is more than worth the effort anyway. At the top, a panorama of factory chimneys, a ring road suffocating the downtown like a constrictor and a truly massive old exhibition centre brightened up with some state sponsored street art awaits you. It’s so beyond ugly it goes right back to being nice. Charleroi is the urban equivalent of a pug: it looks wrong and barely functional, but you just got to love the ugly mutt anyway. Hey, I’m not a model either. But if you ain’t handsome, you better be interesting bro. And that my friends, is no problem for Charleroi.
“Charleroi is the urban equivalent of a pug: it looks wrong and barely functional, but you just got to love the ugly mutt anyway.”
3. Wait for a train that will never come
A short ride in the dusty back of Nico’s rickety van later – seats are for dorks – we find ourselves in the other side of town. Here you can find the infamous ghost metro. In the sixties, when money was still being spent like there was no tomorrow, the city decided to build an eight-line metro network. Twenty years later it appeared there was indeed a tomorrow after all, and the treasury was as empty as I feel deep inside every Valentine’s Day. The whole project was cancelled before it was even half done. This actual station though, was completely finished, but not a single train ever passed through it. It stood unused and abandoned for over thirty years, and it’s still there today. A hole in the fence gives you easy but illegal access to the tracks. Once there you can start recreating your favourite scenes from The Walking Dead like nobody’s watching. Take care though, because somebody could in fact be watching, which is why Nico will not join you here. His face is so well known by the authorities by now, they send the fines straight to his home. Kinda lame.
4. Sing French chansons in someone’s living room
The highlight of the entire tour – if only for the look of absolute bewilderment on the faces of my fellow travellers – is the visit to the inimitable Enrico. This glorious man lives right next to the ghost metro in a tiny former customs house. It’s impossible to describe him in words, but he’s by far my favourite person in all of Wallonia. Enrico is a self-taught philosopher, philanthropist, lawyer and clairvoyant, and he personally solved the Cold War by sending Gorbachev a letter telling him to stop his shit (it’s true, ask either him or Gorbachev). And as if all that wasn’t enough, he produces his own songs as well. He sings them in his living room, to anyone who ended up in his house for some reason. When I saw his friend put on and industrial headset, I instantly knew what we were up for. What followed was an endearingly enthusiastic performance at Tomorrowland decibel level, which almost blew the entire roof to the neighbouring city. The two French girls who had joined the trip completely lost it. Moments later, they were – just slightly against their will – claimed as background singers. Look at the picture above, look at the facial expressions, the wall clippings, the fabulous weirdness of it all. Isn’t it simply mesmerising? I absolutely love people who don’t care about the petty opinions of others and just do their thing. Enrico is a top bloke, and extremely hospitable as well. I have his CD at home, should there be any interest.
“Look at the picture above, look at the facial expressions, the wall clippings, the fabulous weirdness of it all. Isn’t it simply mesmerising?”
Here ends my expedition through Belgium’s wildest industrial jungle, but not my adventure in the city itself. I might have mocked Charleroi a bit, but it’s truly worth a city trip. There are plenty of things to visit here, from interesting museums to nice restaurants and what I consider to be the most unique club in the country. You can read more about the actual attractions next week. Stay tuned!
My visit to Charleroi was supported by the ravishing Morgane of Wallonia-Belgium Tourism. You’ll find lots of tips for every visit in the region on their website. www.walloniabelgiumtourism.co.uk
I stayed at Novotel Charleroi Centre, a nice venue in the brand new shopping mall. It is a five-minute walk from the station, and guests arriving by car receive a 50% discount for the car park under the hotel.
You can find all info on Charleroi Adventure through this link: www.charleroiadventure.com.