Today, Charleroi is one of the gateways to Wallonia, thanks to the busy airport just north of the city. It has had an eventful history. Charleroi grew terrifically rich in the 19th century, went into steady decline in the 1950s, and more recently has been undergoing a big revival. With buildings being revamped and swathes of the city overhauled, today it exudes a great mood of energy.
Granted, your initial sight is of gritty industry, but once you start exploring Charleroi you'll discover a rich architectural legacy, and you'll inevitably become hooked on the enterprising good spirits here. This is a city of very fine Art Nouveau houses – and an even more handsome Art Deco town hall.
Charleroi offers two large and remarkable museums on the outskirts: Europe's biggest photographic gallery is at Mont-sur-Marchienne to the south west (Musée de la Photographie, 0032 7143 5810; museephoto.be); while to the south, in the suburb of Marcinelle, is Le Bois du Cazier (0032 7188 0856; leboisducazier.be). An ingenious complex set in a former colliery, it tells the story of industry as well as housing an appealing gallery of glass production.
The city also has a lively food scene. Head to the city centre on a Sunday morning for one of the largest and oldest markets in Wallonia – dating back to 1709. Stalls groaning with vegetables, fruit, olives, bread, plants and more radiate from Place Charles II, and the air is filled with the aromas of spices, freshly grilled chicken and more.
But on any day of the week you can take an epicurean tour around town. Start on the chic and pedestrianised Rue de Dampremy, lined with enticing boutiques. At number 32 you'll find Comptoir D Thé (0032 7132 0761), gourmet specialist and tearoom where there are a good 150 leaf teas to sample – from India, China, South Africa, even Argentina. Nearby, at Boulevard J Tirou 117, the boulangerie-pâtisserie Schamp (0032 7132 6101) is the official city-centre purveyor of fine Bruyerre chocolates, which are made in the northern reaches of Charleroi where Francois Bruyerre started importing cocoa beans back in 1909.
For an intriguing insight into Charleroi's chocolate and sweet heritage, head to Rue Neuve where, at number 60, Maison Pilloy (0032 7132 6673; idkados.be/pilloy) has been selling sugary delights for 130 years. The most popular product is the gayette, which commemorates Charleroi's days as a mining area. The centre is a truffle made from butter, sugar and chocolate, and covered with caramel and ground coffee beans that glint darkly, like coal.
Further along Rue Neuve, at number 42, you'll find Charleroi's epicurean cheese shop. Le Fromageon (0032 7132 0366) presents a generous spread of Walloon cheeses, from local goat's cheese to Charleroi's soft cheese coated with peppercorns or with nuts.
A little further north, at Rue de la Neuville 14, Maison du Terroir (0032 7123 9680; opw.be) is a haven of Walloon produce. There's a tremendous range here: fruit eau de vie from Distillerie de Biercée; Blanche de Charleroi beer; "Cookie beer" – in part made with speculoos biscuits; jams; patés and more.
Downtown Charleroi offers a host of bars and restaurants. Choose from 65 Belgian beers at La Cuve à Bières (0032 7132 6841) at Boulevard J Bertrand 68. Enjoy industry-inspired artworks and contemporary brasserie cuisine at La Machine (0032 7130 7533) at Rue de Grand Central 16. Get a spirited taste of Charleroi's Italian heritage at Chez Julot (0032 7165 0210) at Avenue de L'Europe 6. Italian miners came here in large number after the Second World War, and this bistro celebrates their influence with gusto.
There are gastronomic treats, too. Just south of the centre in the leafy suburb of Montigny-le-Tilleul is a trio of exceptional restaurants. De Vous à Nous (0032 7147 4703; devousanous.net) at Rue du Grand Bry 42, has a fabulous menu with particularly good fish options. Le Val d'Heure (0032 7151 6535; levaldheure.be) at Rue de la Station 25 offers the freshest of local flavours; and L'Eveil des Sens (see below) is widely regarded as presenting one of the best dining experiences in the country.
Wake up your palate
In 1976, a young teenager from Morocco arrived in Charleroi with the intention of studying electronics. To help pay his way, Laury Zioui (right) took a part-time job washing dishes in a local restaurant. Here he became entranced by the chemistry and poetry of cooking. Electronics was forgotten as step by step he worked his way up to becoming a chef. In 1991, aged 31, he was awarded his first Michelin star at Piersoulx restaurant in Gosselies, north of central Charleroi. In 2002, he started his own restaurant with his wife, Nadia.
The aptly named L'Eveil des Sens (0032 7131 9692; leveildes sens.be), or the Awakening of the Senses, won a Michelin star just nine months after it opened, an award that it retains with pride today.
Set in Montigny-le-Tilleul at Rue de la Station 105, the restaurant is sleek yet thoroughly unpretentious, the black-and-white décor very much playing second fiddle to the exquisite food. Zioui's dishes are a contemporary blend of African, French and Belgian flavours with hints, here and there, of Japanese traditions. Lemon, he says, is important; Moroccan spices too.
Favourites on his menus range from just-fried scallops with finely mashed olives to a delicate tagine of lobster. Set dinner menus start at €68.
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