Belgium may not come across as the most obvious tourist destination, but its charms are endearingly bizarre.
Imagine bypassing the obvious cultural and gastronomic centres that are Bruges, Brussels and Ghent, and heading for the depressed ex-steel town of Charleroi, recently voted “ugliest city in the world”. Charleroi has some of the highest unemployment rates in Belgium, so it’s hard to see what would draw visitors to the country’s third-largest city. But local art graduate Nicolas Buissart has decided to make the most of its decaying industrial heritage with his Urban Safari, an action-packed adventure around a town whose very name strikes fear into the hearts of even the most stoic Belgians.
Charleroi Adventure promises to take visitors on an epic trip that takes in “the place where Magritte’s mother committed suicide, the house of the (Belgian serial killer) Marc Dutroux ... and the most depressing street in all of Belgium”, all for € 25 for a five or six-hour tour and picnic. The concept has angered the municipal authorities, but the safari is a hit.
The tour starts with a walk along the deserted tracks of Charleroi’s ghost metro, completed after more than 10 years of work in the early 1980s. From there, one can head to the oldest steelworks in the valley, Les Forges de la Providence, now used as a workshop by local artists.
After a trip down the grey rue de Mons (“the ugliest road in Belgium”) and around a deserted warehouse, now a rubbish dump where school children play knee-deep in rubble, the safari concludes, with fitting surreality, in an out-of-town shopping centre café. The safari is an odd mix of farcical and sobering. “Ugliness has one great advantage over beauty” says one of the artists in the Cockerill steelworks, portentously quoting Serge Gainsbourg. “It is not diminished by the passage of time.” Perhaps the Charleroi town council would do well to consider that.