Where Magritte got his sense of humour

Charleroi may be hosting three Euro 2000 matches, but there's more to the city than its stadium
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The Independent Travel

Ask the people of Charleroi what they think of their city and they'll tell you it's ugly. A sprawl of slagheaps and smoke-stacks, sniff the guidebooks. Even the tourist office ushers you away to attractions out of town.

Ask the people of Charleroi what they think of their city and they'll tell you it's ugly. A sprawl of slagheaps and smoke-stacks, sniff the guidebooks. Even the tourist office ushers you away to attractions out of town.

But if you knock Belgium's youngest city, founded by the Spanish in the 17th century and named after Charles II of Spain, the plain-speaking "Carolos" will put you right. They'll admit their city's not ideal but they will insist that Charleroi is making the most of what it has, reinventing itself as a city of culture, technology and (don't laugh) ecotourism.

Once a sign of thriving coal-production, the 62 slagheaps have now been recast as symbols of a new, green city. Scramble up these heaps on a guided "country" walk and you'll see grass, trees and even orchids.

Charleroi has none of the obvious splendours of Ghent or Bruges, but settle in one of the slightly shabby cafés on Place Charles II and you'll notice something the Flemish giants can't boast: a ribald sense of humour. The exuberant fountain drenches passers-by with random 20ft spurts and the town hall is a weird 1930s construction that pegs neoclassical pretensions to solid art deco.

Even the city's structure seems to have a sense of comedy. Laid out in 1666 by a local engineer, Charleroi was given a makeover by Louis XIV's master-planner, Vauban, when the French stormed the city the following year. It then bounced between the French and the Spanish until Napoleonic times, when it passed to the Dutch and, in 1831, to the new state of Belgium. The town's incredibly steep streets are an exhausting reminder of its military value.

There's an incongruous Latin feel, partly due to Charleroi's Spanish Habsburg origins but also because of its Italian community, imported wholesale in the late 1940s as Italy bartered labourers for cheap Belgian coal. The mines have closed but the Italians are still there, indicated by restaurants serving yummy ravioli and Charleroi's laid-back vibe.

The town isn't bursting with sights but neither is it a grimy hell. The Fine Arts Museum usually displays works by local lad René Magritte (these are currently somewhere in South America) but, if you want to get to the heart of Charleroi, you'll have to head for the heaps. Its treasures are in the suburbs.

The real jewel is the Photography Museum, tucked away in Mont-sur-Marchienne, south of the centre. Here you'll find Cartier-Bressons, 1869 images of the moon, a Magritte snap of his friends posing as aliens, pictures from the Crimean War and a macabre image of the freshly executed Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, looking rather surprised. There's also a section devoted to coal-mining.

End your visit with a trip to Magritte's childhood home. This striking residence in Châtelet was built by the painter's father, a successful margarine salesman, and marked only by a small bowler-shaped plaque. It's an offhand approach to what should be a star attraction, but for anyone jaded by mass tourism, this "come and find us" attitude will be a breath of fresh air.

Charleroi is hosting three Euro 2000 matches, including England-Germany (17 June). For accommodation, contact the Charleroi tourist office on 00 32 71-866152 (www.charleroi.be). Eurostar (0990 186186) offers a £75 return from London to Charleroi via Brussels, and Sabena (0845 6010933) flies to Brussels (30 minutes away by train) from Heathrow and London City from £85.50 return; Virgin Express (0800 891199) from Gatwick and Heathrow from £76.40 return

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