In the old town you can see some of those typically Belgian narrow and elongated facades with hints of Art-nouveau. In the surroundings there are abandoned factories, neglected neighborhoods with brick houses, graffiti and rubble. It is intuited that there were better times.

This is, broadly speaking, what strange eyes find when they arrive on the banks of Sambre to visit Charleroi, a municipality 50 kilometers south of Brussels, in Wallonia, with a reputation for being an aesthetic monstrosity.

Saint Benedict comes from the neighboring Netherlands and dates back to 2008, when readers of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant chose Charleroi as “the ugliest city in the world”. less graceful cities that are known, along with Amman, Luanda, Los Angeles, Brazaville or Guatemala City.

“It is not so much that the city is ugly, but it is boring. Nothing happens, it is not dynamic. deprecated since 2008.

Buissart is a 42-year-old “carolo” multi-artist and acts as a guide to discover the ugliest things in the city through the Charleroi Adventure agency, whose website features a provocative claim: “Follow us on an urban safari and discover the place where Magritte’s mother committed suicide”.

Charleroi was founded in 1666, from a fortress erected under the rule of King Carlos II of Spain, to whom it owes its name. The French, the Austrians and the Dutch also passed through there. It shone with the industrial revolution thanks to coal and industry, continued to grow at the beginning of the 20th century and lasted until after the Great Wars.

But in the 1960s it began to decline and in the last part of the century its decline accelerated on the back of globalization: many industries closed and the urban landscape was flooded with unemployment, drugs and crime, problems that still persist.

“There is a mental health problem. People were used to big companies offering all services, even schools and swimming pools, and when they left, people became zombies,” says Buissart of a municipality of 200,000 inhabitants (400,000 in the urban agglomeration) whose airport is used by low-cost airlines.

The last big blow to Cherleroi was given by the closure of the Caterpillar factory in 2016, which took 2,000 jobs ahead. The site is still empty, but the construction of a Legoland amusement park is being negotiated.

In front of a cable factory, a boat probes the canal in search of scrap metal, an image that Bruissart uses to reflect on the future of Charleroi: “the future passes through the recycling industry, taking advantage of the canals”, he says.

A few meters away, three young people walk around the area with the air of tourists. They are from Antwerp, the wealthy city in the Flemish north of Belgium.

“I’ve always wanted to visit Charleroi because it has a reputation for being a very ugly city and I think there is beauty in ugliness,” says Matthew.

But not everything is decadence in the city that saw the birth of Spirou magazine in 1938, a showcase for The Smurfs, Lucky Luke or Largo Winch.

Although unemployment is still close to 20%, Charleroi’s socioeconomic indicators have improved somewhat in the last decade, the city boasts of a certain resurgence and there are exciting projects on the horizon: Google will invest 500 million euros in a data center and also Europe’s largest biotechnology school is being built.

“It is no longer the Charleroi that we knew before. There are many companies that settle here because there are (fiscal) advantages with respect to Brussels, the center offers leisure, it is pedestrianized, there are many restaurants, a shopping center…”, he tells Efe the director of the Ibis hotel at the train station, Ovidio Matis.

The dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language defines “beautiful” as something “that, due to the perfection of its forms, pleases the eye or the ear and, by extension, the spirit”. And for “ugly” it includes meanings such as “devoid of beauty and beauty”, “that causes displeasure or aversion” and “of bad or unfavorable appearance”.

Perhaps Charleroi fits the second block of definitions better, but it is difficult to reach an irrefutable conclusion.

Socrates already debated with Hippias about beauty more than 2,000 years ago, a topic taken up later by Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche or Umberto Eco, which gives an idea of ​​how complex it is to define what is beautiful and why, without even incurring in that the canons of beauty change over time.

Charleroi, whose tourist office describes it as “the cradle of the unusual”, contributes a grain of sand to this reflection because if the ugly did not exist perhaps the beautiful could not be distinguished either.

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