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'The Ugliest City in Europe'

The readers of De Volkskrant, a Dutch daily newspaper, once voted Charleroi "the ugliest city in Europe". The town of 200,000 just 40 miles south of Brussels is notorious for its dreary housing complexes and defunct industries and is struggling with a whopping 30 % unemployment rate and worrying levels of crime. Drug users openly shoot up heroin in vacant buildings while prostitutes ply their trade under overpasses on street corners just a few streets from the town hall. Recently, two of the city's mayors had to resign after getting entangled in financial scandals that have come to embody the notorious corruption and nepotism of the Walloon Socialist Party, a regional francophone party that has ruled the city for decades. Two of the five metro lines designed to serve the town have never been finished. Empty ghost stations now serve as stomping grounds for vandals, self-styled graffiti artists and junkies. Another testimonial to administrative incompetence are the many bridges and thoroughfares which stop in the middle of nowhere. They were built, and then abandoned, simply to disburse the subsidies allotted by the federal government.

The other peculiarities of the city are no less grim. The mother of surrealist painter René Magritte committed suicide here, drowning herself in the Sambre which flows through the city. The notorious 'house of horror' belonging to the murderous paedophile Marc Dutroux was also here and Belgium's first and only suicide bomber, Muriel Degauque, who in 2005 drove to Baghdad in a white Mercedes to blow herself up was also a native of the town.

Charleroi has become symbolic for everything that has gone wrong in West in general and in Wallonia, the French speaking part of Belgium, in particular. Charleroi's coal and steel industry had once made it an industrial and envy of Europe. Belgium had the second most extensive railway network on the continent after the UK. But the 1990s and the demise of coal and stell spelled the beginning of the end and the financial crisis dealt the final blow.

And yet, the city has it's poetic side. The tailings from derelict coalmines are now covered in lush vegetation. Along the banks of the Sambre, once a stinking, heavily polluted waterway, people now sit fishing and luxury yachts cruise between rusty, dilapidated steel plants. A huge factory, formerly of steel giant "Cockerill Sambre" is now the HQ of a fashionable music label that occasionally organises music festivals, aptly called Rockerill.

The local tourist office has laid bicycle routes along what is now billed as 'our industrial heritage' and an old industrial complex has been transformed into a museum and education centre. Local artist Nicolas Buissart goes one step further and organises 'urban safaris' where he takes his guests to a vacant metal plant and on to the former house of Dutroux, strolling with them on Charleroi's most depressing street after having climbed a tailing and enjoyed the wide views. Before too long, the first decaying warehouse may be transformed into trendy lofts and Charleroi will become a colony for artists from Brussels or Paris. The city has some potential the only thing missing for now are the people to take advantage of them.

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