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.

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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 Volkskranta Dutch newspaper.

02Centre04---AGFA-125-expired-AB

When we arrived at the train station, we were met by Nicolas Buissart, who started an original tour-guiding business that leads visitors on urbex adventures in Charleroi.

01Centre02 - AGFA 125 expired AB

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.

03Factories by the river11tc4

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.

05Factories-by-the-river21---AGFA-125-expired-AB

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.

08Tracks12tc4

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!

07Tracks17-me--KODAK-PORTRA-400-AB

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!

09Highway03tc4

After some 30 minutes of highway trekking, we finally saw water.

11Walkabout08---KODAK-PORTRA-400-AB

And more railway tracks (these were in use) and factories.

10Tracks15--KODAK-PORTRA-400-AB

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.

12Slag-hill---tagged-by-Nicolas-Buissart06---KODAK-PORTRA-400-AB

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).

13Slag hill01

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.

14-15Slag hill

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.

16Slag hill10 - KODAK PORTRA 400 AB

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??

18Métro fantome - Chet04v50

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.

17Métro-fantome---Chet32---KODAK-PORTRA-400-AB

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.  

19Métro fantome - Chet17-18v50

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.

20Métro-fantome---Pensée19---KODAK-PORTRA-400-ABbw

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.

21Métro fantome - Pensée08v50

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.

22Métro-fantome---Pensée25---KODAK-PORTRA-400-AB.JPG

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!

23Métro fantome - Pensée14k64

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.

24Cooling tower09a25bw

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).

25Cooling tower20a25bw

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!

26Cooling tower05,26lf

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24 replies on “Abandoned in Charleroi

  1. I come from a mining community – be very careful of slag heaps. They can move with devastating consequences (e.g. Aberfan). There was a BBC World Service programme about urban exploration a few months back and it was fascinating stuff – a lot of the places visited were strictly ‘off limits’ but the explorers went there anyway. I think I still prefer the countryside 🙂

    1. I didn’t know that slag heaps can be dangerous, though am not surprised that this is so… What happened in Aberfan was really tragic.

      Coming from Singapore where almost everything is brand-new, I’m constantly amazed by and curious about the abandoned/disused buildings/sites that are here in Europe!

      1. Yes Aberfan was awful. I remember it well. I would have been about 9 at the time and we are from South Wales originally. Our village had slag heaps from the pits. Both my parents worked for the coal board until about 1959 when the slow process of closing the pits started. So when a tragedy struck it felt very close to home. The worst one was in Senghenydd in 1913 when 440 people died. We forget easily how dangerous mining was.

        1. You’re absolutely right. Coming from Singapore, I have had very little association with mining but it’s good to bear in mind what a dangerous occupation it is and the effects it can have if the coal/mining boards are negligent.

  2. This was great! I have experience climbing a slag heap during an apprenticeship at an Indian coal factory. It really is just as you described. But mine was not such a big mound and was quite fresh, so it was easier. I really enjoyed reading this post, I like exploring abandoned places like this. They have a lot to them that crowded and bustling places don’t. Belgium has been on my list of places to see ever since a friend visited there and gave a wonderful account of his trip. Now I feel like visiting Belgium even more!

    1. An apprenticeship at a coal factory! What were you doing there (aside from slag heap climbing)?

      I think one of the most striking things about such places is the silence, especially if you imagine how busy it must have been years ago… Glad to have done my little bit for promoting Belgium! 🙂

      1. I was trying to be an engineer 😛

        Yes! That’s what draws me to such places! I always imagine myself back in time when that place was alive. All such empty historical places fill me with that feeling and what a wonderful feeling that is!

        1. I love your comment “I was trying to be an engineer”!

          I get mixed feelings about these places – a bit of sadness, lot of wonder/amazement once I get over the dust irritating my nose.

          1. Thank you 😀

            Yes, there is sadness. I feel sad for the loss. Not the loss of people or of a civilization but the loss of a way of life. I wonder what it would’ve have been had I been born 200 years back. I know it wasn’t a great time to live, but I would like to know.

            I really like Midnight in Paris for that reason. The movie is based on an Idea that I would so like to do. To experience a place in the time when it was at its most glorious!

          2. What is the most glorious era? In Midnight in Paris, Gil thought it was the 1920s while Adriana went for the 1890s. A slight case of nostalgia too perhaps?

            Would be interesting to see what someone from the early 20th century (or even earlier) would think if he/she were to spend some time in 2014! Horrified / impressed / bewildered (e.g. why would people want to spend so much time interacting with each other via these electronic screens – mobile/computer – when they can just meet in person)?

          3. Aye. By most glorious era, I don’t mean an absolute glory, I mean a period that is most glorious to me. Something that interests me. Like you pointed out.

            Yes. I too think there’s nostalgia there. In fact, it’s mostly nostalgia. It is a yearning for a place and time that we imagine would make us happy.

            I think a person from 120+ years back might find it odd at first, but will take to it quite easily. we aren’t much different from our ancestors from 200 years back, just that we have much more time for leisure and our lives are easier.

            I think we’ve come quite far from where we started, haha! 😀

  3. Superb post! thoroughly enjoyed reading it….who know, the Belgian authorities might declare your post compulsory reading for the chapter on Charleroi! :D. However, the photographs have a tinge of sadness to them…I was somehow reminded of the movie Inception, and the crumbling city which Dom and Mal had built!

    1. Thank you! I tweeted about this post and it got picked up by a few people from Charleroi – which was really nice 🙂 Happy to introduce the destination to more people!

      It was a particularly sunny day and I imagine that it might have seemed even gloomier on a grey day (from what I saw online). Though I suppose the bright weather creates an even contrast with the heavy silence / abandonment of some of these places.

  4. Looks like you and AB had a great trip! Nice photos – you highlighted some really interesting areas, and would have never guessed the city has has been dubbed “the ugliest city in Europe”. 🙂

    1. It was a great trip indeed! I’ve not been to enough cities in Europe to pass any ‘judgement’ but it is true that Charleroi is rather grotty. It would be really interesting if more of these abandoned/unused spaces were re-purposed and could be use to revive the city/economy.

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