It’s been called the “ugliest city in the world” – full of abandoned buildings and even once home to a notorious serial killer paedophile.
With boarded-up houses and abandoned industrial plants, Charleroi in Belgium was once the heart of the country’s coal industry, The Sun reports.
But today, its factories lie abandoned and the scars of the mining industry still ravage the city.
Speaking to The Sun Online, artist Nicolas Buissart, who runs tours around his home city, explained why he loves its gritty charm.
In 2009, readers of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant branded Charleroi the “ugliest city in the universe”.
Buissart said that when the article came out, it was the “perfect marketing opportunity” for Charleroi.
“If you are seen as an ugly city, you might as well be ‘the ugliest’,” he said.
He made a website with his friend advertising the “Charleroi Adventure”, and soon they had hundreds of people signing up for their tours.
Buissart says that at first, local authorities and tourist groups hated him, but little by little, they have been embraced.
“At first, the authorities blamed me for spreading the image of Charleroi as a depressing place,” he said.
But over time, official tour guides in the city have begun offering their own visits to abandoned factories and even creating maps of the ruins for themselves.
“My tours start in the city centre,” he said, “but they differ depending on the makeup of the group.”
Buissart’s tour groups can range from school kids to buck’s parties. He’s even hosted members of the European Commission.
“I explain the history of Charleroi, and then we move to the factories,” he said. “I have keys to some of the abandoned buildings, so I show people around.
“If the weather is good, we can climb a slag heap – which is the waste material produced from mining. Then there are bars that we can visit.
“For bigger groups, we can have a barbecue by the riverside.”
Fall of an industrial powerhouse
When Belgium became industrialised shortly after gaining its independence in 1830, the south of the country, where Charleroi is, experienced a coal boom, earning the nickname the “Black Country”.
But after the 1950s, as oil became the dominant fuel, Belgium’s industry moved to the north of the country and its North Sea coast.
Parts of the country went into major industrial decline.
Charleroi has become notorious in recent decades for crime, deprivation, and general decline.
Recent statistics show rampant unemployment figures at 20 per cent in Charleroi, compared to around 6 per cent nationwide.
Just 60km south of Brussels, the city of 200,000 is marked by its dreary housing complexes and shuttered factories.
It is also home to “the ugliest road in Belgium,” the meandering, grey Rue de Mons.
Cultural anthropologist and war photographer Teun Voeten wrote in a feature on Charleroi: “Drug users openly shoot up heroin in vacant buildings, while prostitutes ply their trade under overpasses on street corners just a few streets from the town hall.”
He went on: “Two of the five metro lines designed to serve the town have never been finished. Empty ghost stations now serve as stomping grounds for vandals, self-styled graffiti artists and junkies.”
In recent years, the city has also struggled to shake off its associations with one of its most famous former residents – Belgian serial killer and paedophile Marc Dutroux.
He was arrested in 1996 for the kidnap, rape and torture of six girls between the ages of eight and 19. Four of his victims died.
In June, his former “house of horrors” in Charleroi was finally torn down to make way for a public garden.
The run-down shuttered terraced house was once a feature of Buissart’s “urban safari” tours of his home city.
Rough, ugly and boring
Is he concerned that his tours could help make Charleroi too trendy and gentrified, taking away the feature that makes it unique?
“Amsterdam was very cool in the ’90s,” he said. “Now the people living there have become older, and the city has become more of a museum.
“Many of the ‘cool’ people have moved to Brussels, which was considered boring in the past, but is a lot cheaper than Amsterdam and Paris.”
He added that a lot of the artists who now come to Charleroi still live in Brussels as the city still feels too rough for them to live there.
It wasn’t the case that Charleroi was just “ugly”, Buissart explained, but that it was “boring”.
The same socialist political party had run the city for 40 years and the middle class and upper class had moved out to the suburbs.
People didn’t want to come back to the city centre.
Efforts have been made to clean up some of the most run-down parts of the city in recent years.
Local authorities have laid bicycle routes alongside the former factories, while an old industrial complex has been transformed into a museum and education centre.
Buissart urges people to visit Charleroi and give his gritty city a chance.
“Charleroi is in the middle of everything,” he said. “It is only an hour from Brussels and Ghent on the train.
“We have a crazy disco in an abandoned factory called ‘Rockerill’,” he said. “If you like partying, come to Charleroi.”
This story was originally published by The Sun and has been reproduced with permission