Among Belgians, the former mining town of Charleroi is generally viewed as derelict, poor and polluted because it has one of the highest crime rates in the country and one in four inhabitants are unemployed. The closest most people ever get to it is Brussels South Charleroi Airport, Belgium’s second biggest airport. That’s a shame, because despite its social setbacks Charleroi is home to a world-renowned photography museum and has an impressive industrial heritage as well as a rich comic strip history. Here’s a list of the 10 best things to see and do in the city named after the Spanish king Charles II, which is why the locals are often referred to as Carolos.
BPS22 is the art museum of the Province of Hainaut, of which Charleroi is the most populous city. It is housed in an industrial building of glass and iron, which is listed as a historic monument and was used as the Walloon Art Palace for the Charleroi exhibition of 1911. It has an exhibition area of approximately 2,500 square metres with mainly works by artists from Hainaut on display, ranging from photographs to paintings and art installations. BPS22 also hosts more experimental events, bringing together different artistic disciplines, such as music, theatre and dance, that create links with the visual arts.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts is housed in the Palais des Beaux-Arts, a theatre built in art-deco style by Belgian architect Joseph André in 1956. It houses works from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century that cover the major artistic movements that have developed in Belgium, such as Surrealism, Abstraction and Post-Impressionism. The museum archives hold 3,000 items, including paintings, sculptures, photographs and ceramics.
This world-renowned photography museum is housed in a former Carmelite convent, which was renovated and expanded with a modern annex in 2008. Covering 2,200 square metres, it houses extensive collections of all sorts of photography from all periods, exhibiting them both as fixed and temporal exhibitions. Some of them are exhibited on the outside, in the convent’s park.
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the Charleroi region became one of the principal centres of economic activity in Belgium. This all came to a halt after the rapid decline of mining and heavy manufacturing in the area following World War II and by 1970, Charleroi was battling rampant unemployment and poverty. The Industry Museum retraces this history, featuring a sheet-metal rolling mill from the mid-19th century, steam machines, dynamos and an electric tramway dating back to 1904.
The region around Charleroi was once famous for producing some of the finest glass in the world. This museum details that past along with a general history of glass-making across the globe. Housed in an old lamp store, visitors can blow their own glass and marvel at the works on display, such as antique Egyptian glass bottles as well as modern-day glass sculptures.
This coal mine in Marcinelle, near Charleroi, was the site of the worst mining disaster in Belgian history. On August 8, 1956, an underground fire killed 262 men. The tragedy was a pivotal point in the history of coal mining in Belgium, because mines were subsequently required to comply with much more stringent safety standards, which saw many of them closed for being uneconomical. Today the site is open for visitors to walk around the old mining stations, slag heaps and several memorials. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. The Glass Museum and the Industry Museum are housed on the same site.
Situated at the heart of the town in front of the town hall on Charles II square, Saint Christophe’s church has a rather peculiar architecture. Built in 1667 as a chapel, it was converted to a Baroque church in the 18th century. It has since undergone several other modifications and restorations, the most spectacular of these was in the 1950’s, which gave it a look of a Byzantine basilica. The most impressive feature of the church is a large 200-square metre mosaic, made from millions of pieces of coloured glass and covered with thin gold leaf. The composition by Belgian painter Jean Ransy was made in Venice and depicts the Apocalypse from the text of Saint John.
The town hall of Charleroi is an eclectic building mixing Classicism and Art Deco architecture. It was built by local architect Joseph Andre and inaugurated in 1936. The building includes a 70-metre high belfry, which is classified as a UNESCO heritage site. In addition to administrative and political functions, the town hall has a ballroom that can accommodate more than 1,000 people. In the 1950’s, part of the ground floor was occupied by firefighters and up until 2007 the second floor housed the Musée des Beaux-Arts. In the attic is the Musée Jules Destrée, a small museum dedicated to a local politician that can be visited by appointment.
Charleroi is one of the birthplaces of Belgian comic strip culture, as the Spirou magazine was published there first in 1938, featuring such popular comics as Lucky Luke, The Smurfs and of course Spirou himself. Dotted throughout the city are several statues of comic strip characters: Spirou and Fantasio can be found at the roundabout located at the intersection of Avenue Général Michel, Boulevard Janson, Rue Spinois, Boulevard Mayence and Boulevard Zoé Drion; the Marsupilami sits on a rock in the middle of Jules Hiernaux square; Lucky Luke can be found riding his horse at the entrance of Queen Astrid park; and Billy & Buddy are up to no good at the roundabout located at the intersection of Boulevard Joseph II, Boulevard Zoé Drion, Boulevard Dewandre and Rue Isaac. Additionally, at the metro station Parc, you can see Lucky Luke murals, while further characters await you at the Janson station.
The centre of Charleroi is relatively compact and walkable. Because the city is located on a slight hill, the northern part of the centre is known as Ville Haute (‘upper town’ in French), and the southern part as Ville Basse (‘lower town’ in French). In the upper part of town you will find the town hall, Saint Christophe’s church and the Palais des Beaux-Arts. The most picturesque part of the Ville Basse is the river Sambre, whose northern bank features the tree-lined boulevards Quai de Brabant and Quai de Flandre. The southern bank is dominated by the Gare du Charleroi-Sud, which is the city’s main train station, an imposing historic building dating back to 1874, the middle of Charleroi’s golden age, and renovated in 2011.
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