The cradle of Belgian comic strips, a thriving photography museum, an avant-garde art scene and leafy parks and grassy slag heaps: Charleroi has much to offer, according to its tourism authority.
“With its pedestrian streets, its squares, its parks, its arterial roads and shopping centers, as well as its tourist and leisure infrastructures, Charleroi is a friendly city where it is nice to stroll and shop,” its website says.
Nicolas Buissart sees things a bit differently. Part tour guide, part provocative rebel, the 32-year-old artist shows visitors the dark side: The factories left over from Belgium’s industrial heyday, empty storefronts, remnants of drug use on a river bank, gloomy metro stations, the jumble of soot-darkened buildings.
Readers of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant once declared the city, about 60 kilometers south of the Belgian capital, Brussels, the “ugliest in the world.”
“Charleroi is peculiar,” Buissart said. “What the Germans didn’t destroy, the Socialists did.”
“It’s not your classical tourist city. It’s a bit of a difficult city, with a bit of a harsh face,” said Lina Turchet, from Charleroi’s tourism office. “It’s not a smooth picture.”
Still, she is no fan of Buissart and his largely improvised Charleroi Adventure city safaris. “Here’s my personal opinion: It’s not professional, it’s not tourism,” Turchet said. “All cities have a dark side. … It’s easy to highlight just certain aspects.”
Particularly notorious locations on the Charleroi Adventures include the house of pedophile killer Marc Dutroux and the place where the mother of Surrealist artist Rene Magritte committed suicide.
Buissart will joke that the city center looks like the Chechen capital of Grozny and that the neighborhood of Dampremy could come straight out of a Communist film. But he will also show off a gigantic old forge that has been taken over by the Rockerill artist collaborative or march visitors up the now green slag heaps for spectacular views of a city that has won over film directors on the hunt for a hard edge.
His tours include a visit to the Hotel Charleroi artist group, which has set up camp in the city’s slowly decaying 60,000-square-meter Exhibition Palace.
“When it rains, the water leaks into the building,” Hotel Charleroi co-founder Adrien Tirtiaux said, gazing over one cavernous exhibition hall, built for a time when fairs were all the rage.
“For me, this is a metaphor for the whole city,” he said. “It wasn’t able to adapt to new standards.”
Part of Charleroi’s problem, he said, is that it never formed an identity of its own.
The largest city in the country’s French-speaking Wallonia region, Charleroi traces its roots back to 1666, when Spaniards built a fortress overlooking the Sambre River and named it in honor of King Charles II of Spain.
In its early history, Charleroi changed hands several times between the French, Spanish, Dutch and Austrian kingdoms. It witnessed more heavy fighting during World War I, finding itself on the front between German and Allied forces.
At the start of the 19th century, it was swept up in the Industrial Revolution, with its glass, metal and coal industries booming. The Charleroi area was Belgium’s largest coal basin — earning it the nickname “black country.”
“We don’t disavow our black country roots,” Tirtiaux said, noting that projects are in the works to further show them off.
But can Charleroi be beautiful? “We were born amid the factories,” Benito Artoy of the Rockerill artist collaborative said. “If you want to find beauty, you will.”