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Take a walk on the wild side in Charleroi

bridge with graffitti in Charleroi
19:45 06/02/2015

When family and friends come to visit it's de rigeur to make a day-trip to stylish Antwerp, bustling Ghent or touristy Bruges. Maybe in summer you take a train to the coast to dip your toes in the North Sea or head south to take in the small city of Dinant.  What's almost certain is that a trip to Charleroi isn't on your whistle-stop tour of Belgium.

The Charleroi Adventure City Safari wants to change that, and a cold, grey Sunday in January seemed like the perfect day to discover what has been dubbed the ugliest city in Europe.

The frost is still lying on the ground when we rendezvous with Charleroi Safari founder, and our guide for the day, Nicolas Buissart. A little bleary-eyed, his welcome is off-beat yet warm.  Starting the tour near the offices of La Gazette, the city's daily newspaper, he gives the low-down on their coverage. "We are socialists around here, but it's a strange populist brand of socialism".

Then the tour begins in earnest and we are soon tramping up canal tow-paths, under bridges and through disused warehouses. The scale of industry, both past and to a small degree present, so close to the centre of the town is impressive and the hulking behemoths of abandoned industry must hold a certain appeal for amateur photographers with a fondness for gritty urban landscapes. Whether you'd be happy to wake up to it every day is another matter.

Undeterred by the slippery path underfoot, we follow the canal as far as the district of Marchienne-Au-Pont, an infamous spot even in much-maligned Charleroi. Skirting around the side of the out-of-use, drained indoor swimming pool, Nicolas quips, "The Flemish make fun of the Walloons, the Walloons make jokes about Charleroi, and the Carolais in their turn mock Marchienne-au-Pont".

The tour continues apace, and, as we walk past unending walls of colourful street art, Nicolas shares more insight into his city. Acknowledging Charleroi lacks the scenic beauty to compete with other Belgian cities as a classic tourism destination, he is eager to share how the rise and fall of industry in Charleroi has shaped the landscape and its inhabitants.

Nicolas' brand of off-kilter charisma carries us through a half-day in this tough, post-industrial atmosphere which totters on the surreal at times.

Nicolas tailors his tours to the personality and general humour of his guests and the season, so no two tours are likely to be the same. Winding up the tour, he sells us the idea of 'Charleroi Safari - Part 2' promising there's plenty more to see and savour.

The Charleroi Safari is definitely not for everyone, but if you like to stray off the beaten track,  if you prefer to wander through streets than make a beeline for the museum, then perhaps it's time to venture forth and see for yourself.

Written by Julie Kavanagh