HEADING TO CHARLEROI

I’ve been to Charleroi several times, thanks to various flights from Charleroi Airport, and every time that I was there to catch a flight, I always thought that I should plan a visit to just explore Charleroi. One fine long weekend, I did just that. I took the train from Brussels Central to Charleroi and in a bit over an hour I was there at Charleroi South railway station.

BIKING IN CHARLEROI

Being car-free in Charleroi is pretty easy because there’s a cycle rental (Point Velo) just outside Charleroi South railway station. I had pre-booked an e-bike to make it easier to ride long distances without getting too tired. It was a very streamlined experience. I had to pay a deposit and soon the bike was mine for the next 2 days.

BIKING TOP TIP: If you already have a bike, it is possible to bring it on the SNCB Train with a supplement bike ticket

DAY 1 FIRST STOP - BOIS DU CAZIER COAL MINE

© Jean-Luc Deru - daylight com

My first stop in Charleroi was Bois du Cazier Coal Mine. It is a quick 4km ride through the town. It is one of the 4 coal mines listed together as the Major Mining Sites of Wallonia in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. Bois du Cazier has 3 museums in it that would easily take a couple of hours at least.

The first is the Coal Mine itself including its 8 Aug 1956 Memorial. The museum begins in the outdoors with a coal wagon on the railway tracks and housing colonies of the workers. Then it moves inside with how the coal mines functioned in their heyday. It begins with the changing rooms and uniforms of the coal workers and moves to their lanterns & badges. At the end of the museum is the 8 Aug 1956 Memorial that talks about the catastrophe that happened here and about hundreds of coal mine workers who died in the mishap. Since most of those workers were Italians, this is an important spot for memorial tourism for Italians in Belgium and everything here has Italian subtitles & labels. There are some contemporary modern arts all over the museum to pay homage to the departed souls.

The second is the Museum of Industry which is a part of the main Coal Mine area. Industrialization and coal mines went hand in hand. Coal energy gave a major boost to industrialization. This part of the museum begins with a movie about how Industrialization transformed this region and how industrialization itself has transformed with technology these days. This area has train wagons, tram wagons are more examples of industries that boomed because of coal mining.

The third is the Glass Museum which is in a separate area on the same premise. There are some historic glass pieces here, excavated from ancient sites as well as complicated modern glass & crystal articles.

DAY 1 SECOND STOP - CHARLEROI BELFRY & ST.CHRISTOPHE BASILICA

Panoramic view of the belfry (UNESCO) Saint-Christophe church in the town of Charleroi©  WBT - Christophe Vandercam

After visiting Bois du Cazier mine, I was back in Charleroi city for 3 things - Belfry, Basilica and of course lunch!

The central square of Charleroi is actually a circle with streets radiating in all directions, called Place Charles II. On one direction is Saint-Christophe de Charleroi church and another direction is Tourism Office and on yet another direction is the Charleroi Belfry.

Charleroi Belfry is one of the 56 Belfries across Belgium & France that have a UNESCO status. 70m tall and located in the heart of the city, it is pretty much visible from most of the streets around the centre and it gave a perfect skyline to Charleroi. The Belfry is part of the Charleroi City Hall and the entrance is through the same as well. It is quite a blend of classic style with the contemporary art deco style of its era. It is possible to climb this belfry only as a part of a guided tour which should be reserved in advance through the tourism office. It is totally worth it and the view from atop is fantastic, especially the view of St.Christophe Church from atop!

St.Christophe Church looks majestic and feels humongous the moment you enter it. Though the history of the church dates back to 17th C CE, the current architecture is relatively new, built in 1955. The nave of the church is inspired by Byzantine mosaic art which is gilded and shimmers with golden gorgeousness. It is even possible to climb the dome here, but that must be pre-booked via the tourism office as well.

This central “square” has quite a few restaurants and cafes of many cuisines, so lunch here is easy (or perhaps a bit difficult with the choices of restaurants)!

CHARLEROI TOP TIP: When you’re in Charleroi city centre, if you’re interested in contemporary arts, do check out BPS22 Arts Museum. It hosts exhibitions from time to time of various Belgian contemporary artists.

DAY 1 THIRD STOP - STREET ART IN CHARLEROI

©  Madame Bougeotte

After lunch, armed with the Carolo Street Art Tour map, I began my hunt for the graffities & murals all over the city. Thanks to the Urban Dream Festival which first happened in 2002, there are quite a few impressive artworks all over the city. Ever since then, the city has hosted several events & many artists from all over Europe to create their masterpieces in the walls and public places of Charleroi.

Since I was in the centre, I began the hunt from the north and headed towards the south. My first stop was ‘Le Parvis des Enfants’ near a school. Perfect to its location, it was so colorful, playful and happy! On the next street, on the other side of the school were 2 more comical murals, both by HuskMitNavn. My next stop was Parc J Depelsenaire which has 2 more artworks. Soon I was at Parc metro station dedicated to the cowboy comic character Lucky Luke. After a couple more graffiti including one dedicated to Emojis, I was closer to the Charleroi railway station where there’s the huge Big Bad Wolf & ‘big’ Little Red Riding Hood that covers an entire side of a multistorey building. Just behind it at Place Rucloux are 2 huge murals by Hell’O Monsters and Sozyone Gonzales. By now, I was at the southern tip of Carolo Street Art tour and it was time for me to head to my next destination via the Ravel network route along the river Sambre.

DAY 1 BIKING ALONG RIVER SAMBRE

The best cycling routes in Wallonia are mapped in the Ravel network. What is a Ravel? Ravel is a network of paved & unpaved roads meant for walking, cycling and horse riding. This road connecting Charleroi and Thuin is a part of the Euro Velo 3. The distance between Charleroi & Thuin is 21km and mostly runs along River Sambre.

The route is extremely picturesque with a wide range of sceneries of Industrial places juxtaposed against natural beauty! Once I was past the industrial areas, it was very peaceful and in all the villages that I crossed by, there were locals, fishing on the river Sambre. The winding road along the winding river was just picture perfect.

BIKING TOP TIP: If you’re really up for it and if you’re a pro-biker (and if the weather is good) then the best idea would be to ride a bike all the way from Brussels along the ‘Brussels - Charleroi’ Canal. This is a 70km distance.

DAY 1 FOURTH STOP - INDUSTRIAL HERITAGE OF CHARLEROI

© Christophe Vandercam

On this route are 2 important features - Industrial Heritage of Charleroi and Street Art. Yes, the street art also continues for a bit along this Ravel as well!

The best way to explore the industrial heritage of Charleroi is definitely to go on a City Safari with Charleroi Adventure. This is a guided walking tour that takes you through very unusual spots like industrial wastelands, the top of a slag heap etc.

The next best way is to go on a self-guided walking/biking tour of a 20km loop called Slag Heap Trail or Boucle Noire, which would take half a day by itself. Since I already had the bike with me and not much time, I did only a portion of this trail that is along the river Sambre and then continued on my way to Thuin.

Riding further ahead was quite an unusual landscape with cable-stayed bridges, water treatment plants etc. Then there’s the picturesque, unusual Power Plant IM, which was once the largest coal-burning powerplants decades ago. Side by side with this, in complete contrast, is the greenery of river Sambre. It was quite a scenery.

DAY 1 - STAY AT ABBEY INN AT AULNE

Somewhere between Charleroi and Thuin, my choice of accommodation for a night was not a hotel per se, but the Abbey Inn (Auberge de l’Abbaye) at Aulne! Waking up to the view of sun-kissed Aulne Abbey from your bedroom window is not something you get to see often! The rooms were simple with basic amenities, but the best thing is that it is also a part of the Gateway of the Aulne Abbey - you don’t often get to sleep in a bedroom whose walls are made of rough stones of a historic building, which feels a bit like a castle! Without much of light pollution, the night sky is filled with stars and that’s incredibly picturesque. If you’re into Milkyway photography, here’s a perfect place to do it with the perfect foreground of Aulne Abbey! There are only 6 rooms in the whole Inn, so make sure to book a room much in advance, esp. during weekends & holidays. Auberge de l’Abbaye has its own restaurant, and the food here was absolutely fantastic and so is the beer.  

AULNE TOP TIP: If you are up to it, head to Café Leblon just beside Aulne Abbey, by sunset, where you can hire a license-free boat to ride on River Sambre.

DAY 2 FIRST STOP - AULNE ABBEY

Discover the history of the Aulne Abbey, in Gozée, and the life of its Cistercian monks. ©  WBT - S. Wittenbol

My second day began with the view of the most picturesque & instagrammable locations of Wallonia, Aulne Abbey, from my hotel room! Though commonly called Thuin Abbey, this is technically 8km before Thuin. Since I stayed here, I was among the first persons to enter the Aulne Abbey early in the morning, as soon as they opened their doors.

Thuin Abbey History: The earliest mention of Thuin Abbey is in 637 CE when it was founded by St.Landelin. The current architecture was built in the early 13th C CE. It was during the French Revolution that it was completely destroyed and damaged. After that, it was never built and in course of time, it slowly fell into ruins. Today the ruins have been preserved as it is and that makes Thuin Abbey one of the most instagrammable places in Belgium.

It is allowed to go inside the premises of Abbey, but not straight under the ruins of the main church (unlike Villers Abbey). The neo-gothic windows are just so splendid and during Spring or Summer, the vegetation growing over the ruins, makes it very very picturesque.

DAY 2 SECOND STOP - THUIN HANGING GARDENS, VINEYARD & ART TRAIL

©  WBT - Bruno D'Alimonte

Soon after Aulne Abbey, I headed to the town of Thuin, located 8km away. My first stop in Thuin was the Thuin tourism office where I left my bike and picked up the map of the walking trails in the town. There are 3 major trails, each dedicated to the Hanging Gardens of Thuin, the Medieval city, and the Barge life. This map also mentions the spots where the various artworks of the Fluide event are located. With this map, I started to walk around Thuin. I primarily followed the Hanging Gardens waymarked trail but took a few deviations in order to not miss some of the artworks. One of the interesting aspects of Thuin is that the whole town is in several levels & altitudes. Some streets are very hilly and there are even some staircases instead of streets!

When I first heard about the hanging gardens, I thought it was one small garden, but turns out it is a long stretch of an area around Thuin, along the town’s historic fortification walls and the trail extends to about 4.5km. I began at the Tourism Office at Place Albert 1er and this spot itself lends an impeccable view of the Northern valley along the river Sambre. In front of the tourism office was the first stop for the Fluide art installation as well. Here’s are 2 creations - John Cornu’s ‘Like a glove’ (Comme un Gant) and Daniel Fauville’s ‘River keepers’ (Gardiens du Fleuve).

Quite interestingly, my next stop was ‘below’ this point, on a parallel street just beside but at a different altitude! Here’s the art installation of Djos Janssens. It is a 17m long neon quote: “L’ombre n’a pas encore étendu son emprise sur nos espérances” which means “The shadow has not yet extended its hold on our hopes”. 

I went back to Place Albert 1er and started walking into the town through its tiny lanes & impasses and soon I was in the Southern valley view at the Rue Saint Jaques. The speciality here is that since it has the fortification walls on one side, it creates a micro-climate where plants thrive that unusually aren’t local to this region including grapes to produce wine! The vineyard here has mostly Régent grapes and the speciality wine produced here is called Le Clos des Zouaves. It has a beautiful sweet taste that tempted me to drink more than a glass, but it did have a whopping 18% alcohol.

Also, Rue Saint Jacques is the location of 2 more art installation murals: Charlotte Beaudry’s ‘Jackdaws’ (choucas des tours) and Sara Conty’s ‘Messiah’ inspired by Matryoshka dolls! At the end of this street is Posty Bury and I went through, what looks like an underground tunnel, but it opens up to the ramparts ahead! Soon I was at the next art installation Christine Mawet’s ‘Back to the Tools’ followed by Seringe Mbaye Camera’s ‘Like a well of Life’ (Comme un puits de vie’)! This is an absolutely stunning viewpoint from where not only the 2 murals are visible but also, Jerome Considerant’s ‘Silverado’ as well as the 3 towers - Church of our lady of Mount Carmel, Thuin Belfry, Thuin Courthouse and the vineyard in the hanging gardens!

From there I headed into the wooded area of Bois du Grand Bon Dieu where there are not 1 or 2, but about 30 benches, all over the forest, created by Xavier Rijs. They are all made of reclaimed, repurposed wood of Oak trees, tastefully made in a very contemporary, minimalistic style!  There are also a few more wooden art installations in the forest by Mario Ferretti.

After Bois du Grand Bon Dieu, I was back at the centre to see the belfry, pick up my bike and head off to the ASVI Tramway Museum which is along the Barge Life route. Along the way is the Eglise NotreDame d’El Vaulx which has Sophie Langohr’s art installation ‘The City Councilors’ (Les édiles). There are a few more art installations all over the city but it was time for me to head to the next destination.

DAY 2 THIRD STOP - THUIN BELFRY

The belfry of Thuin, listed by Unesco©  WBT - David Samyn

As I just mentioned, after Bois du Grand Bon Dieu, I was at the Belfry. Like the Charleroi Belfry, this is also one of the 56 Belfries across Belgium and France, listed together as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But unlike Charleroi Belfry, this can be accessed by a self-guided tour.

The Thuin Belfry has quite a bit of history from the Romanesque era to medieval times to the recent past. The best & quickest way to understand it is with a short film that’s shown as soon as you enter. This is a 40m tall Baroque bell tower with a Carillon atop and the staircases took me atop. There is a central tower and 4 turrets on all sides. The best thing here is that it is possible to climb each of these turrets for a unique view of Thuin, including one that gives a view of the mighty river Sambre.

DAY 2 FOURTH STOP - TRAMWAY MUSEUM & DISCOVERY CENTRE

©  Jean-Claude Andrieu

My last stop in Thuin was the Tramway Museum and Discovery Centre. This region was where, once upon a time, SNCV (vicinal) Tramway was a functional mode of public transport to connect Thuin & Lobbes. Over time, the tramway moved from Steam engine to Diesel engine to Electric engine and today, since the railway line connects it, all those tramcars are on display at this museum incl. Belgium’s oldest electric tramway car! To some extent The Vicinal Historic Tramway Discovery Centre in Thuin did remind me of the Tramway Museum in Brussels but ASVI felt more historic.

The best part was getting to ride on this tram! While it is fun to ride on the electric tram, I had planned my trip to Thuin to coincide with a day when the vapour tram was running. It is quite an amusing experience, esp. because I had never actually travelled on a steam rail/tram ever before. The sound of it and the view of the greenery on either side was quite an experience. It was a 6km ride to Biesme-sous-Thuin & back (there’s also a 4km ride to Lobbes & back).

THUIN TOP TIP: If you have some more time at Thuin, do check out Print Museum too. You could also bike to Lobbes to the Museum of Honey & Honeybees. Don’t forget to buy your bottle of local honey here!

DAY 2 - STAY AT AU CRAPAUD CHARMANT, LABUISSIERE

From ASVI, I was off to my next town, La Buissiere for the night where I stayed at Au Crapaud Charmant. The B&B was absolutely charming. The best thing about here is the outdoor area behind the B&B which also has an open-air jacuzzi. There are seating arrangements in the backyard facing the river Sambre itself! Spending a warm evening, sipping some beer and relaxing in the lawn chairs of Au Crapaud Charmant is the perfect way to wrap up a day.  

DAY 3 - FIRST STOP - LABUISSIERE NATURE RESERVE

My next day began with a walk to the very lush, very green Labuissière Nature Reserve in Haute Sambre, which is a must-visit for every nature enthusiast & avid birder. Being along river Sambre, this region is mainly swamps and wet meadows filled with many water birds and migratory birds including ducks, cormorants & herons as well as a few horses. This is in fact the largest nesting area of Herons! This reserve is protected by Natagora which has set up a few little wooden huts, beside the water bodies to sit down and just observe the bird activities.

LABUISSIERE NATURE RESERVE TOP TIP: While hiking is one awesome way to explore Haute Sambre, another way is by kayaking or with a stand-up Paddle Boat on river Sambre at Merbes-le-Château with Nature Evasion.

DAY 3 - SECOND STOP - ERQUELINNES

Then I headed to the farthest destination of my trip - Erquelinnes. There were a couple of small towns on the way and it started getting busier as I neared Erquelinnes. Just ahead of it I stopped by, at the fortified castle of Solre-sur-Sambre (which can only be seen from outside) for a few pictures.

The first thing I did as soon as I reached Erquelinnes was to touch the French border and ride on Rue Saint-Antoine and Rue des Usines where the houses on one side of the street are Belgian and the houses on another side of the street are French! The highway that leads to France is filled with so many little cafes & restaurants where lunch is no problem at all!

My very last stop for the day was the Erquelinnes Microbrewery. I visited the hop plantation there which also features some of the equipment for traditional brewing. I wrapped up the brewery tour sipping a bottle of Angelus Blonde beer.

TRAIN BACK TO CHARLEROI AND RETURN BIKE

I rested a bit at the Port de Plaisance Park with the view of yachts at Erquelinnes and then it was time for me to head back home. One option is to bike back to Charleroi from Thuin along the Sambre (40km) as I went onwards, which I didn’t want to do by now since I already had my good dose of biking for 3 days. Another option is to take a train from Thuin to Charleroi Sud and bring the bike on the train which is what I did.

DINNER AT CHARLEROI

After returning the bike, I headed to Atelier de La Manufacture Urbaine located just behind Charleroi South railway station. It is a charming diner with local food (they have a few vegan/vegetarian options), inhouse bread and inhouse beer. The ambience was quite interesting with the brewing equipment all around. The concept is like a restaurant housed ‘inside’ a brewery!

TRAIN BACK TO BRUSSELS

SNCB TOP TIP: If you plan to explore more of Wallonia car-free then a good idea would be to buy the Standard Multi Train pass which allows 10 journeys (5 trips) between any 2 railway stations within Belgium and is valid for 1 year.

CHARLEROI - THUIN - ERQUELINNES ITINERARIES

If the above 3-days itinerary doesn’t suit you here are some alternatives.

Charleroi - Thuin 2-days itinerary

Just Day 1 & Day 2 as described above. Skip La Buissiere & Erquelinnes and return back to Charleroi!

Charleroi - Erquelinnes 2-days itinerary (bike love)

Day 1 - Charleroi (Bois du Cazier, Belfry), Ride along Sambre graffiti & industrial heritage, Aulne Abbey. Stay at Auberge de l’Abbaye.

Day 2 - Thuin Hanging gardens, Bike along Sambre and hike at Labuissière Nature Reserve, Erquelinnes French border and brewery. Return to Charleroi by train taking the bike with you on the train.

Charleroi - Thuin 1 day itinerary

Bois du Cazier, Belfry, a fast bike ride to Aulne Abbey, then a slow ride along Sambre graffiti & industrial heritage at your own pace while biking back to Charleroi.

About the Author: Bhushavali is an Indian travel blogger, currently living in Belgium. Her background in art history gives her the interest and insight to explore the historic & heritage sites in Belgium. Her primary interest is UNESCO Sites and she has visited 14 of the 15 Belgian UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as the UNESCO Global Geopark. Visit her blog here: My Travelogue by Bhushavali.

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