The scenery change is striking as I leave Nivelles behind, the quaint urban landscape giving way to the electricity pylons and rotating wind turbines that mark the industrial heartland of Belgium. Before you know it, the track is running alongside the county’s canal and I am already surrounded by the grey black hills locally known as terril, the slag heaps of industrial waste accumulating over several decades of metallurgy and coal mining. The older heaps are covered with greenery and stumpy trees, although the unnatural bulges of deposited detritus are ultimately betraying their man-made origin. The train rolls into the Marchienne-Au-Pont station, and I am looking outside the window for signs of life beyond the unwilling shuffle of the few passengers who are getting off here. Most of the red brick buildings opposite the station look abandoned, their windows smashed in, and in some cases burned out, their roofs collapsing two floors below. Looking out the other side, I spot a gipsy encampment in an open space behind a huge advertising board – 4 mini vans and pick up trucks parked in a semi-circle, their owners smoking, drinking and taking the sticky warm noon air on their lounge chairs. The train rolls on for another 5 minutes past giant, monolithic factories – all of them abandoned and rusting away. I have arrived at Charleroi.
I meet Nico outside the south train station. He has lived there for most of his life, and it turns out that we have common friends from his time as an art student in Antwerp, but this is an unnecessary icebreaker : as we walk along the canal towards the huge rusting hulks of the great factories he reveals himself as an incredibly easy communicator : “I wave at people, and greet them. It opens doors” he says. It’s how we cross the guarded barriers into the old steel mill proper. “This could yet be a studio for Hollywood” he says pointing towards a grand scenery of abandonment with post-apocalyptic qualities. “That could be perfect for shooting a sci-fi movie, like Blade Runner” he says hopefully “or Mad Max”, I respond. Charleroi’s unusual qualities have indeed captured the attention of the movie industry : It is rumoured that parts of Luc Besson’s new film (2018) production about the sinking of Kursk might have been shot on location here. It’s as near as one can get to a city that resembles Archangelsk, USSR’s arctic naval base during the 80s.
We’re heading back into the city, past a huge mountain of steel scraps added to by a crane emptying a tired barge, and onwards under a crumbling concrete flyover that appears to have suffered a nuclear attack. “It hasn’t always been like that” Nico says and he goes on to reminisce about the early industrial era, when Charleroi first became a prosperous city of a hundred manufactories. Indeed, the abandoned Art Nouveau townhouses and shops in the old city center reveal that its inhabitants had seen better times in the past. Today, every other house is boarded up, rats and pigeons infesting their often astonishing interiors, with high, ornamented ceilings and period furniture. What happened here? “Bad governance, corruption, lack of representation.. the state’s priorities shifted and the lack of sufficient local political influence at that point in time brought this on” says Nico. Charleroi gradually lost its prominence and relevance, and was left abandoned, slowly withering away. From the 70s onward, the region has suffered continuously and often registered some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in Europe : the population gradually declined as younger people moved on to other places to pursue their dreams.
We reach an open space among the half-ruined buildings of the city center. Prostitutes are staring us down from the benches outside their dilapidated houses, the lace window curtains dulling the red light glow emanating from inside. This pedestrianized area appears new, and surely enough, a modern, recently built mall appears around the next corner. It’s full of shoppers and youths killing time. These are signs of the ongoing efforts for urban regeneration, and it appears that many old houses have been demolished to create these open pedestrian spaces that direct you to the malls and cafes commanding the better looking facades at Place Verte… for a brief moment I am transported to a cute provincial city that looks like it’s preparing to rival any other city break destination : “Our airport is an important hub, frequented by low cost airlines, and has the capacity to expand”, states Nico, ” this is not the case for Zaventem in Brussels” . This is not a pipe dream, Charleroi has already grown to become a major gateway to Belgium in recent years and already welcoming a third of the passenger arrivals of the main capital hub : that’s well over 7 million passengers a year ! “Some of them are bound to stay and spend here”, he says, a great business plan already taking shape in his mind.
We take a break at La Quille, a local bistro where Nico is greeted like the local hero he is : He collects handshakes, hugs and double cheek pecks from everyone inside. We sit down for a quick biere and the plat du jour, and locals keep pouring in : more hugs, more kisses – of which I also happily collect some. It’s a Friday afternoon, and the place is heaving with people. They are very social and ask a lot of reasonable questions about what’s bringing me there. I think that in the beginning, they must have found it hard to believe how Nico’s Charleroi Adventure project could be attracting visitors to this forsaken city, but then the TV channels and big press has eventually proven them wrong, while curious visitors like myself are still arriving to the city, eager to experience its decadent allure. “I especially laugh at the hardcore Urbex people, with their gas masks and ninja outfits” he muses. “I meet them all the time around the abandoned factories and houses, they’re ever trying to be stealthy and secretive like they’re breaching a top secret location – and here I come round the corner with a group of pot-bellied German journalists in blazers or a loud French student group. I usually tell them that I saw their car parked nearby and someone had set it on fire”. He seems to enjoy terrorizing such visitor types because, the way I understood it, many of them don’t really get it : “Charleroi isn’t an abandoned ghost town. It’s a city, people live here. I live here. It’s not a pleasant place but it is my town”, he says. He’s indigenous, comfortable with his habitat and understands the origins of the urban decay that’s surrounding him, always excited to explain how the city got there – but at the same time, he will not stand for those who treat Charleroi as some dead, abandoned place : It’s alive and kicking.
We hop on his car, an ancient Golf that looks and smells like it arose from the swamp. “It looks crap but in fact it’s extremely roadworthy. There are loads of flashy, polished cars out there whose owners never maintain them mechanically – they are dangerous. I invest on keeping it sound, not appealing” – and I am pondering whether this could become a paradigm for Charleroi. I roll down the window as we drive through the tough-as-nails suburbs. Nico owns part of an old factory he bought a while ago. He has plans to turn it into an art space, guesting artists, hosting parties, even accommodating visitors. There’s a canal right outside, and with a fair dose of imagination, I can see how cool this place could turn out in the regenerated, gentrified Charleroi of the future. He might not have to wait too long : our next stop is the astonishing Rockerill, a previously abandoned forge turned into a massive art/club space in 2011. I’ve had my fair share of dark, seedy clubs but this place is truly raw, visceral : It looks and feels like a drinking den out of the Fallout universe, with strange giant sculptures made of welded metal scraps, old dusty machinery, car parts, crates, cranes and furnaces – only the Nuka Cola and Rad Roach snacks are missing. Everything’s made of scrap items that would normally end up to a recycling plant, but it appears that someone’s rubbish can become someone else’s art and inspiration : the result is both dystopian and imposing. This is surely one of the most avant-garde clubs in Europe and it regularly attracts the best underground music and dj acts, along with some major brands as their sponsors, ever ready to pump money into making their products play cooler. Rockerill used to forge steel in the old times, but now it forges great music and art, and quite probably loads of profits for the current owners.
On the way back to the train station, we meet some local kids in baseball caps and tracksuits that see us pass by and accost us with drunken jokes. Nico is expertly using his natural charm, and what would have otherwise been a peculiar encounter ends in high fives and loud laughs, the kids moving on to stop a well dressed, fast walking businessman with a leather briefcase. Walking further along the canal towards where he came from, we find ourselves just outside Quai10, a newly opened indie/art-house cinema and the new, chic looking restaurant and craft brewery that also just opened across it – this is an area that’s already been gentrified and it’s already beginning to attract a different clientele. Of course Nico knows the owners, who are happily distracted from their business plans laid out on the table, to greet us and wish us well.
Before I know it, I am sitting in an empty train waiting to head back to Brussels. It is already past 1700 hrs on a Friday afternoon but almost nobody seems to be eager to leave the city behind – and after all I have experienced today, why would they? Beyond the enduring hardships and daily contradictions, and despite its dual nature, Charleroi and its warm, welcoming and industrious people are determined to use those traditional qualities of theirs to pursue a better and brighter future. I am looking forward to witness these changes next time I visit.
You can book the Charleroi Adventure City Safari here
Special thanks to Nicolas Buissart , a true son of Charleroi that made this report possible