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Wallonia’s second largest city is an industrial and engineering centre. That fact alone might persuade some visitors to give it a wide berth, but there are many good reasons to slip off the motorway and take a wander. Among the most successful renovations are undoubtedly the docks by the Sambre, which today make a very pleasant walk.
Founded by the Spanish Netherlands in 1666, and named after the king of Spain at the time, Charleroi once had a large fortress that presided over the Upper Town. Few remnants remain today, but the site has been impressively remodelled into place Charles II, where no fewer than nine streets converge on a vast open space. The square was enhanced in the 20th century with the completion of two outstanding Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings: the Town Hall’s 70 metre-high Belfry and St Christopher Basilica, which has an eye-catching copper dome and a remarkable mosaic decorating the choir, made from hundreds of thousands of tiny squares of glass that depict the biblical Book of Revelations. The cobbled rue de la Montagne, the main shopping street, connects the Upper Town with the Lower Town, where the obvious photo opportunity is the glass-covered 19th-century arcade, Passage de la Bourse, with its row of wooden-framed and well-preserved shops.
The young city is the cradle of Belgium’s Black Country, but it’s more than that. It’s also the capital of comic strips and alternative culture. It’s the home of the publisher Dupuis, which has produced the famous children’s magazine Spirou since 1938. Culture in Charleroi is also on display at its and the Bois du Cazier, which is listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. All these have given the city a glowing international reputation
Part of Charleroi’s industrial heritage is celebrated at the Glass Museum, which takes you on a tour backwards through time, from contemporary creations to a fascinating collection of glass treasures from the ancient world. Museum of Photography is the largest of its kind in Europe, with a new wing dedicated to the latest developments in the digital world. Elsewhere, there are museums showcasing fine art, science, the coal industry, pottery and local folklore. That takes care of any rainy days.
One of Charleroi’s most attractive features is its Sunday market, which spills across the town centre and fills the surrounding area with the aroma of spices from its many food stands. The city also boasts some exceptional cafés and restaurants, where sweet-toothed visitors should sample the white sugar tart, a dessert speciality of the region which makes an invigorating finale to any meal and is every bit as sinful as it sounds.
Also worthy of mention is the artist René Magritte, who was born in Lessines and studied in Charleroi before obtaining a place at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels.