During a conversation with a group of journalists from the UK:
Journalist 1: How do you find Brussels?
Me: It’s a small city (blah blah blah)… It’s very convenient to visit and explore other cities from Brussels.
Journalist 2: Where have you been in Belgium?
Me: I’ve not been to most of the country yet. I really like Antwerp, it’s like a perpetual fashion set! Then there’s Charleroi…
Journalist 1: Charleroi! Why in the world did you go there?!?
Me: Why not? Have you been there?
Journalist 1: As a matter of fact, yes. I did a piece for a newspaper – it was part of a series of press trips hosted by the Belgian tourism board. My colleagues went to Bruges, Antwerp, and when it was my turn, I had Charleroi.
Me: I see. My boyfriend and I wanted to visit other parts of Belgium. While researching online, I came across some interesting articles on Charleroi, so we decided to go there on an “urban safari”, which was really cool.
Journalist 3: What’s that about?
So I launched into a spirited introduction to Charleroi for the journalists. I think that the Belgian or Charleroi tourist office should give me some credit for promoting the city!
Below is a chronological account of our day in Charleroi and a mix of photos taken by AB on film with his rangefinder and me with my x100.
Located in the southern part of Belgium, in the French-speaking Wallonie region, Charleroi is less than an hour by train from Brussels. During the Industrial Revolution, Charleroi was the capital of le pays noir (the black country). The city’s coal industry powered the Belgian economy for about a century until the decline of the mining industry.
Charleroi closed its last coal mine in 1984. Since then, the city has slipped into economic decline and is often referred by Belgians as the ‘Detroit’ of Belgium. The city also has the unfortunate reputation of being voted “the ugliest city in Europe” in a 2010 poll conducted by De Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper.
A Carolorégien who grew up in the outskirts of the city, Nicolas knows the city inside out, especially the locations of the many disused factories and abandoned industrial buildings, and how to get access into them.
We walked for several hours around Charleroi, exploring the remnants of its industrial glory days, on this exceptionally sunny day.
Starting with the canals, which were instrumental in transporting coal from Charleroi up north to Brussels. It’s remarkable just how many massive factories, several of which were coal-producing factories that have ceased operations, lined the canals.
We followed Nicolas onto a disused train track that weaved around more factories. He shared with us that this was the first time that he had covered this section of the tracks which used to transport coal to/from the factories.
In case we were spotted and approached by authorities or security guards, we were to feign ignorance and just say that we were walking around aimlessly. I briefly rehearsed in my head how I was going to pretend to be a clueless Chinese tourist!
The tracks eventually went under a fence into a private compound and we arrived at a dead end, staring into a tall brick wall. So we climbed over it, jumped onto the pavement on the other side and continued along the highway.
I trailed behind Nicolas and AB, alternating between scratching my hands – there was poison ivy on the wall – and taking photos. The drivers in the cars that zipped by us must be wondering who were those weirdos walking along the highway in the middle of the day!
After some 30 minutes of highway trekking, we finally saw water.
And more railway tracks (these were in use) and factories.
Nicolas proudly pointed out to us his tag (a huge © copyright symbol) on a slag heap. After passing ‘his’ slag heap, we made a turn around a nearby petrol station and soon we were climbing, up another larger slag heap.
Climbing up this man-made hill composed from slag (waste matter produced from coal mining) was not as easy as I thought. Have you ever walked on a slag heap? If not, imagine a giant heap of coarse, dry sand that is constantly slipping beneath your feet with every step.
Fortunately, this particular slag heap has been there for decades and has plants growing over it. So there were bits of dried grass that I could grab every now and then to steady myself on the ascent.
The panoramic view from atop the slag heap was amazing! Absolutely worth the climb and black toe nails (note to self: do not wear sandals when climbing slag heaps).
Our slag heap must have been the tallest in the area. From where we were, we had a 360-degree bird’s eye view of the city, looking out to a sprawling horizon dotted with massive industrial sites, a striking contrast to the clusters of low-lying residential neighbourhoods.
With the mid-day sun beating upon us as we stood on the top of the slag heap – I’m sure this mound of black waste material was attracting plenty of heat – it was soon time to make our way down.
The photo below was taken by AB with a red filter over his rangefinder. He didn’t know that he had loaded a colour film, instead of one in black and white. I quite like the effect of this photo and find that it fits quite well with the overall abandoned, grotty feel of Charleroi.
The descent was trickier than the ascent as there were thick thorny scrubs for the most part. At times, it felt like jungle bashing. How I wish I had a parang (machete-like knife that is commonly used in southeast Asia) with me.
After making our way back to solid ground, we grabbed a quick bite in the city centre and hopped into Nicolas’ van. It was time to pay a visit to his friend, Enrico, who lives next to the never-been-used Chet metro station.
During the ride, Nicolas commented several times that Enrico is quite a character and that we would need to be patient around him. What did he really mean??
Enrico warmly welcomed us into his home, showing us newspaper clippings in which he appeared as well as his DIY recording studio decorated with kitsch knick-knacks. He was more than happy to show us around the metro stations while Nicolas – who has been blacklisted by the local police and tourism authorities for his alternative take on showcasing Charleroi – took an afternoon break chez Enrico.
Enrico is quite a character indeed: He’s a self-proclaimed prophet and gave us a copy of his multi-coloured manifesto! While it was not easy to keep up with his rapid-fire and somewhat incoherent speech, it was great fun exploring this corner of Charleroi with him.
Together with Enrico, we walked around the completed, but never-been-used pre-métro stations (Chet and Pensée) that lie between Waterloo and Centenaire on the Chatelet line. Nicknamed “métro fantome” (phantom metro), these stations were completed in 1986 but were never operated as the city ran out of money to finish the construction of the entire line following the collapse of the mining industry.
Today, the stations’ structure remain intact albeit the graffiti and missing copper cables (stolen for sale in China, according to Enrico). While there have been talks to complete and operate the line in the past years, it seems unlikely that there will be any progress in the near future.
We really liked the striking design of the Pensée station with its lofty, slanted wooden ceiling and pockets of skylight over the platform. Such a shame that these stations are just left unused, especially after the millions of dollars that were spent to construct them.
The photo perspective below was suggested by Enrico, who had picked up some tips from the news photographers that he had showed around in the past. Not bad!
After bidding Enrico farewell, we hopped into Nicolas’ van for one final jaunt – a de-commissioned cooling tower. Unfortunately, the door to the tower was locked on the day we were there, so we could only observe the structure from outside.
We met two guys who were also exploring the area. One of them, from Liège, was climbing under and up the inside of the cooling tower. AB joined him briefly to peek from beneath while balancing precariously on some tyres over the dubious-looking water (aside from the mould, who knows what else was in it).
The summer sun was still shining bright when we dusted our hands and made our way back to the train station in Nicolas’ van.
What a day! This is one of the most interesting trips I’ve experienced so far in Belgium. Would love to return to Charleroi and see more of the city with Nicolas leading the way!
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