THE so-called “world’s ugliest city” is just an hour’s flight from London – and full of abandoned buildings, it was home to an infamous serial killer pedophile.
With boarded-up houses and abandoned industrial sites, Charleroi in Belgium was once the heart of the country’s coal industry.
But today their 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 of his hometown, explained why he loves the gritty charm.
In 2009, readers of Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant dubbed Charleroi the “ugliest city in the universe”.
Nicolas said when the article came out it was the “perfect marketing opportunity” for Charleroi.
“If you’re seen as the ugliest city, you might as well be ‘the ugliest,'” he explained.
He created a website with his friend promoting the “Charleroi Adventure” and soon they had hundreds of people signing up for their tours.
Nicolas says that at first the local authorities and tourist groups hated him, but gradually they were embraced.
“Initially, the authorities accused me of promoting the image of Charleroi as a depressing place,” he said.
But over time, official tour guides in the city have started offering their own visits to abandoned factories and even making maps of the ruins for themselves.
“My tours start in the city center,” explains Nicolas, “but they differ depending on the composition of the group.”
Nicolas’ tour groups can range from school children to stag and hen parties to members of the European Commission.
“I explain the history of Charleroi and then we go 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 heap – that’s the waste that comes from mining. Then there are bars that we can visit.
“For larger groups we can have a barbecue on the river bank.”
If you’re seen as the ugliest city, you might as well be “the ugliest”.
Belgium was industrialized after England shortly after gaining independence in 1830.
The south of the country, in Wallonia around Charleroi, experienced a coal boom and became the industrial powerhouse of the country, nicknamed the “Black Country”.
But after the 1950s, as coal fortunes declined and oil became the dominant fuel, Belgian industry moved north of the country and to the North Sea coast.
In a pattern repeated across much of the UK, US and France, parts of Belgium experienced a major industrial decline.
Charleroi has become notorious for crime, deprivation and general decline in recent decades.
Recent statistics show a rampant unemployment rate of 20 percent in Charleroi, compared to around 6 percent nationwide.
Only 40 miles south of Brussels, the city of 200,000 is characterized by its dreary residential complexes and closed factories.
It’s also home to “Belgium’s ugliest street,” the winding, gray Rue de Mons.
Cultural anthropologist and war photographer Teun Voeten wrote in a feature about Charleroi: “Drug users openly inject heroin in derelict buildings, while prostitutes ply their trades just a few blocks from City Hall under overpasses on street corners.”
He continued: “Two of the five subway lines planned to serve the city were never completed. Empty ghost stations now serve as a playground for vandals, self-proclaimed graffiti artists and junkies.”
“HOUSE OF FRIGHTS”
In recent years, the city has also struggled to shake off its ties to one of its most famous former residents – Belgian serial killer and pedophile Marc Dutroux.
He was arrested in 1996 for kidnapping, raping and torturing six girls between the ages of eight and 19, four of whom died.
In June, his former “house of horrors” in Charleroi was finally demolished to make way for a public garden.
The ramshackle terraced house with shuttered windows was once a feature of Nicolas’ “city safari” tours of his hometown.
Does Nicolas worry that his tours could help make Charleroi too trendy and gentrified and rob it of the trait that makes it unique?
“Amsterdam was very cool in the 90s,” he said. “Now the people who live there have gotten older and the city has become more of a museum.
“A lot of the ‘cool’ people have moved to Brussels, which used to be considered boring but is a lot cheaper than Amsterdam and Paris.”
He added that many of the artists who are now coming to Charleroi are still based in Brussels as the city still feels too rough for them to live there.
Charleroi is not only “ugly”, explained Nicolas, but “boring”.
The same socialist political party had ruled the city for 40 years, and the middle and upper classes had moved to the suburbs.
People didn’t want to go back downtown.
Efforts have been made in recent years to clean up some of the most seedy parts of the city.
Local authorities have created bike paths along the former factories, while an old industrial complex has been converted into a museum and educational center.
Nicolas urges the Brits to visit Charleroi and give his gloomy city a chance.
“Charleroi is right in the middle,” he said. “It’s only an hour from Brussels and Ghent by train.
And has some advice for any Brit who might want to make the trip to Charleroi for a holiday with a difference.
“We have a crazy disco in an abandoned factory called ‘Rockerill,'” he said. “If you like to party, come to Charleroi.”
https://www.the-sun.com/news/5996973/inside-ugliest-city-world-charleroi-belgium/ In the ‘UGLIEST city on earth’, just an hour from London, with boarded up houses and abandoned buildings