Charleroi: Wish You Were Here?

Eccentric artist offers guided tours through a city that’s been called the ugliest in the world.

One won’t find mention of Nicolas Buissart’s “Adventure City Safari” in Charleroi, Belgium’s official tourist literature. And it’s safe to say that the town councilors are none too pleased with the 30-year-old artist, who, along with “super posh” girl friend Liv Vaisberg, offers five- and six-hour tours that highlight the decaying industrial city’s least attractive features, including never-used, graffiti-covered train stations, abandoned factories, and garbage piles. One can’t blame the local tourism board for being a bit sensitive, not when one considers that Charleroi was recently voted “ugliest city in the world” by readers of the Dutch newspaper Volksrant. Never mind the fact that Buissart’s so-called urban safari includes a ride down the decidedly dreary rue de Mons (“the ugliest road in Belgium”).

On the other hand, perhaps Charleroi should embrace its dark and dumpy image. After all, Buissart’s tours—which he’s been conducting for the past year-and-a-half—are attracting tourists from all over Europe. And according to Vaisberg, the duo—who met at an art opening in Antwerp—function as good ambassadors for the city, doing nothing more or less than selling what the run-down former industrial center has to offer. “Everyone knows Charleroi is ugly,” she recently told the BBC. “All the inhabitants will tell you our city is ugly, but what we do is to give a positive image.”

To be sure, Charleroi isn’t an easy sell for the local chamber of commerce. Located in Belgium’s French-speaking south, the city has been in decline since the 1980s, when most of the coal plants and steel mills closed, leaving few employment options for the 200,000 or so residents. Today, Charleroi’s unemployment rate hovers around 25 percent, more than double the national average. And residents are reminded of the past at every turn, thanks to the plethora of decaying buildings and the “ghost” metro system, whose construction was halted in the mid-1980s when the city ran out of money. The half-built lines and stations still remain, a reminder of what might have been had Charleroi remained prosperous.

So it’s fitting then that the safaris are no-frills. After coughing up €25 (approximately $33) each, subscribers can expect Buissart to ferry them about his hometown in a dilapidated white passenger van, one most notable for its absence of seats. As for food, the operators provide baguettes and box lunches, which may or may not be served on top of a slag heap.

The tours don’t follow a fixed route either, the stops determined, in part, by the interests of the clients. “It always change,” says Buissart, who honors requests to visit the house where the mother of surrealist painter Magritte lived (before she drowned herself), as well as a onetime home of serial killer Marc Dutroux. Tourists also tend to be curious about a local museum that commemorates the city’s infamous mining tragedy of August 8, 1956, which took the lives of 262 workers.

All tour-goers need to be prepared to get dirty, however, as many destinations require slithering under fences and scampering over walls, keeping an eye out for disapproving police officers all the while. Participants have been known to bring along packets of anti-bacterial wipes, and to be glad they did. This isn’t to say that they regret the experience—or fail to appreciate the city’s subtle charms. Before departing many purchase one of the T-shirts or buttons being peddled by Buissart, all emblazoned with the same unequivocal message: I love Charleroi.

Official Web site of Charleroi Adventure City Safari