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Summer staycation in Belgium: 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 Rive Gauche shopping complex has reignited 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. As a metropolis, Charleroi groups 29 municipalities, making it one of the most populous in Belgium. South of the city, beautiful countryside stretches all the way to the French border.
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 uphill shopping drag Rue de la Montagne to Place Charles II, the belfry and the upper town. 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 more challenging walk, climb one of the nearby slag heaps to appreciate a panoramic view.
There are a number of walking tours to admire Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, façade treasures and offbeat urban sites. Cultural hotspots include the arts complex Palais des Beaux-Arts and the renovated contemporary arts space BPS22 (pictured, above) which is running a summer programme for children and families. Film buffs are well served at Quai10, a cinema and gaming 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 a lovingly preserved coal mine Bois du Cazier at Marcinelle, also commemorating the 1956 mining disaster in which 262 men lost their lives.
Occupying a prime spot on the quayside, La Manufacture Urbaine incorporates a brasserie, brewery, bakery and live music and event venue. Fabrizzio Chirico is the up-and-coming restaurateur in charge of La Table, a modern bistro menu featuring some local star produce. 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.
In the area
There’s more to Wallonia than the fir tree forests and river gorges of the Ardennes. The highly underrated countryside between the Sambre and Meuse rivers boasts unexpected charms and is particularly attractive when trying to avoid hordes of tourists. They include Floreffe and Maredsous abbeys and the Molignée Valley, where a popular family pastime is riding railbikes. For lovely garden walks, family activities, fishing and wild swimming, the Lac de Bambois in Fosse (pictured, above) is open to visitors (reservation necessary).
Heading south, you’ll find a rural area familiarly known as the boot of Hainaut. It’s home to the gastronomic delights of Chimay Abbey and Biercée distillery), as well as the extensive Lacs de l’Eau d’Heure (pictured, above). The top tourist destination in Wallonia and largest man-made water resort in Belgium harbours holiday village and wooden chalets, while activities range from nautical and nature to adventure and relaxation. Two water ski lifts – the first in the world to be powered by solar energy – plus a restaurant/terrace with wood burner and onsite eco-friendly accommodation, make up the lakes’ Spin Cablepark.
Photos: Panorama Charleroi - WBT (c) Morgane Vander Linden; Charleroi-Francis POURCEL-Wallonie insolite - Street Art; WBT - Denis Erroyaux-Charleroi - BPS22; WBT - David Samyn-'Lacs de l'Eau d'Heure' - Aqua Golf _ Amazing Wallonia