Dreary one day, depressing the next

ONCE at the centre of Belgium's coal and industry belt, Charleroi is surrounded by a post-industrial landscape of slagheaps and derelict factories. It faces the latest global recession having never recovered from the previous two.

The city in the Walloon, French-speaking region of southern Belgium is openly acknowledged by many of its inhabitants to be the most depressing place in Europe.

Some enterprising citizens are cashing in on its reputation by offering "urban safaris" through the sheer hideousness of their city, billed as "the ugliest city in the world" by a recent opinion poll in neighbouring Holland.

"Hop in our van for an urban safari and discover the place where Magritte's mother committed suicide, the house of the infamous Dutroux, the most depressing street in all of Belgium, climb on a terril (waste coal pile) and visit an authentic abandoned metal factory," offers one tour company.

Charleroi, whose people are known as Carolos, has become notorious as the home of pedophile and killer Marc Dutroux. Last week, the city council finally decided to demolish his "house of horror" and replace it with a memorial flower garden.

Another Carolo, Muriel Degauque, became the world's first white female suicide bomber when she blew herself up in Baghdad in 2005.

The tours, which are booked up for the next month, are a rare example of economic success. Nicolas Buissart, a Carolo studying art in Antwerp, began the guided tours to get people to think twice about the city of his birth.

Every year, millions of tourists pass through Charleroi's airport, the "Brussels South" home to Ryanair and other budget airlines, without glimpsing anything more than the city's terrils and abandoned factories.

"People fly in to visit Belgium on their way to Brussels or Bruges and they are shocked at the landscape of dirt, slagheaps and wasteland which looks like something from Russia," said Bert Thiry, 43, who works near the airport.

"It does not make me proud to be Belgian."

Bruno Waterfield, Charleroi, Belgium - TELEGRAPH