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Summer city trips in Belgium #11: Charleroi
Welcome to Belgium’s black country. The oft-maligned city is Belgium’s poster child for postwar urban depression. Yet there’s optimism in the air around its regeneration, and, thanks to its airport, most people can pinpoint Charleroi on a map. The new Rive Gauche shopping complex is reigniting the downtown area with shops, a hotel, apartments, cafes, bars, restaurants and outdoor performing space. Locals, known as Carolos, remain positive and loyally defensive of their city, which is full of artistic grit and defiance.
It’s a city of highs and lows in more ways than one, divided as it is into a lower and upper town. Charleroi South railway station is close to the former; as you cross the Sambre, admire The Miner and The Metallurgist, two sculptures by Belgian artist Constantin Meunier. You now can’t miss the new Rive Gauche shopping mall, carefully integrated into the urban fabric of the lower town. It boasts seven entry and exits, bay windows, skylights and incorporates the listed Neoclassic Passage de la Bourse. The 90-store complex opens onto the newly-named Place Verte. From here, follow the rising shopping drag Rue de la Montagne to Place Charles II, the belfry and the upper town. Nearby cultural hotspots include the arts complex Palais des Beaux-Arts and the recently renovated contemporary arts space BPS22. Statues of the Marcinelle school characters Marsupilami, Lucky Luke and Spirou & Fantasio, dotted around the city, celebrate Charleroi’s history as a comic capital. For a challenging walk, climb one of the nearby slag heaps and admire the view.
Take a tour to admire Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture and offbeat sites. Film buffs are well served at Quai10, a new cinema complex on the banks of the Sambre. Rockerill Production, a former industrial factory, has been transformed into an alternative urban cultural centre in Marchienne-au-Pont, serving as a platform for local musicians. At Mont-sur-Marchienne, the Charleroi Photo Museum was once a Carmelite convent but now shows major international exhibitions. One of the most important local heritage sites is Bois du Cazier at Marcinelle, commemorating the 1956 mining disaster in which 262 men lost their lives. In summer, head to the countryside between the Sambre and Meuse rivers for Unesco-recognised walks.
Charleroi is one of the few towns where you can still find horsemeat on the menu. If that doesn’t appeal, there are numerous Italian and Greek eateries thanks to the influx of immigrants in the postwar period. La Cantine des Bouchons is a brasserie serving regional fare; for gastronomic dining, try L’Eveil des sens in Montigny-le-Tilleul. In Marchienne-au-Pont, you’ll find the Saka 20 wine bar, where larger-than-life host Philippe can fill you in on local life.