On what used to be Belgium’s industrial backbone, La Louvière is a city known for its feats of industrial ingenuity.
There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites along these lines.
One is a set of four century-old hydraulic boat elevators on the Canal du Centre, on epic metal frames and lifting vessels as high as 17 metres each.
The canal is still a key artery for freight in Belgium, and in 2002 a mammoth new lift went into operation nearby at Strépy-Thieu.
Also locally you can discover the lengths that coal mining companies went to keep their workers happy, at the self-contained village around Bois-du-Luc.
La Louvière is a relatively new city, but has an entrenched carnival heritage, bringing lots of whimsy and craziness on the days leading up to Shrove Tuesday.
1. Hydraulic Boat Lifts
Bestriding the Canal du Centre close to La Louvière are four century-old technological marvels that look like they might have been dreamed up by H.G. Wells.
These are hydraulic boat lifts, erected between 1888 and 1917 and designed to compensate for an elevation difference of more than 66 metres along just seven kilometres of the canal.
In east- to-west order, they are found at Houdeng-Goegnies, Houdeng-Aimeries, Strépy-Bracquegnies and Thieu.
They were designed by English civil engineer Edwin Clark and are made up of two vertically mobile and counterbalanced caissons supported in the middle by an iron column.
These four structures are still in working order and now a single UNESCO World Heritage Site that can be admired on a twice-daily cruise along the old canal.
2. Strépy-Thieu Boatlift
As we’ll see, the Canal du Centre was widened in a long-term modern project, completed in 2002. This bypassed the old boatlifts, putting all their work on the shoulders of one record-breaking megastructure.
Completed in 2002 after 20 years of construction, the Strépy-Thieu Boatlift was the tallest in the world at the time, at 102 metres and serving a height difference of 73.15 metres between the upstream and downstream reaches.
It comprises two counterweighted caissons travelling vertically, and weighing the same whether they’re carrying a vessel or just water because of Archimedes’ Principle.
Unsurprisingly the boat lift is a tourist attraction, and you can take a ride aboard a barge for a small fee.
On the eight floor there’s a small, newly renovated museum about inland navigation in Belgium.
3. Canal du Centre
More on the actual waterway, which is just over 20 kilometres and links the Meuse with the Scheldt.
This piece of infrastructure had been centuries in the pipeline as a means of transporting coal, but the almost 100-metre difference in elevation between the two rivers was prohibitive until human technology could catch up at the turn of the 20th century.
After more than 30 years of work, delayed by questions about economic viability and the First World War, the canal opened to traffic in 1919. A new parallel waterway, ready in 2002, allows for larger craft, so today’s commercial traffic bypasses the old lifts.
But, setting off from the modern Strépy-Thieu Boatlift, there are two cruises a day on the old canal, navigating each of the historic boatlifts for the best perspective of these industrial masterworks.
You can also ride along the towpath, pausing at Houdeng-Aimeries where there’s a beautiful old swing bridge over the canal.
4. Keramis-Centre de la Ceramique
The old, listed Boch earthenware manufactory on the edge of the city centre now holds this first-rate museum dedicated to ceramics.
The Boch Collection is an extraordinary assemblage of 19th and 20th-century earthenware produced by this manufactory, with pieces by master craftsmen and feted industrial designers like Charles Catteau (1880-1966) who designed exquisite Art Deco vases.
The exhibition also recounts the lifespan of the company and explains the manufactory’s techniques.
To help there’s a trio of giant bottle kilns, still in situ.
Keramis also explores the world of ceramics with expertly curated exhibitions on historical figures, movements and contemporary ceramic artists.
5. Mining Site Bois-du-Luc
Contributing to the Major Mining Sites of Wallonia UNESCO World Heritage Site is this coalmine just outside La Louvière that shut down in the 70s.
Bois-du-Luc has a history going back 1685 but it’s the activity during the 19th century and the mine’s role during the Industrial Revolution that garners so much interest.
What’s really compelling is the intact miners’ village around it, which is a monument to social paternalism and comes with homes, offices, a performance space that can still be visited, all separate from the pithead and workshops.
You’ll get a rare insight into the lives of workers during the 19th century, at a village built from nothing and containing shops, a mill/brewery, schools, a hospital, care home, library schools and a park, all as a means of making workers’ lives more comfortable and gaining their loyalty.
When you visit you can borrow a bike to see how nature has reclaimed the mine’s on slag heaps now ensconced in woodland.
6. Musée Royal de Mariemont
The industrialist and philanthropist Raoul Warocqué (1870-1917) bequeathed his sizeable and very eclectic collection of art and antiquities to the Belgian state when he passed away during the First World War.
This initially came inside Warocqué’s lavish Neoclassical mansion, which burnt down in 1960, although its contents were saved.
The current building opened on the same estate in 1975 and is replete with Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and East Asian antiquities, also recently bolstered by a donation of pieces from the Pre-Columbian Americas.
Warocqué was also interested in local archaeology, so there’s a lot of fascinating Gallo-Roman and Merovingian items unearthed around Hainault.
On display as well is one of the finest assortments of Tournai porcelain in the world, while the museum’s library is extensive and along with manuscripts, incunabula and valuable printed books from the 16th to the 21st centuries, holds letters written by Napoleon, Rembrandt, Diderot, Beethoven and even The Beatles.
Outside, the estate’s 45 hectares of English landscaped parkland is yours to explore.
La Louvière’s Neoclassical former courthouse (1900) is the repository for the city’s art collection.
MiLL opened here in 1987 and was given a renovation in the 2000s, with cartoon characters helping youngsters navigate the exhibits.
The museum holds the largest number of works by Romanian-born 20th-century sculptor Idel Ianchelevici (1909-1994) of any museum in the world.
These marbles, plaster casts, bronzes and medallions, as well Ianchelevici’s drawings, have pride of place on the ground floor, while the upper level is set aside for short-term contemporary art exhibitions.
8. Centre de la Gravure et de l’Image Imprimée
This museum is devoted to engraving and contemporary printed art and has put together a hefty collection spanning the second half of the 20th century to the present.
There are 10,000 individual prints, some 2,000 posters and 1,000 books and portfolios by 1,640 contemporary artists from Belgium and abroad.
A whole spectrum of media is represented, from traditional prints to new technology, via graphic art, typography, illustration comics and a lot more.
It is all housed in a building from 1930 that started out as a swimming pool before becoming a factory and then a flea market.
The centre opened here in the 1980s and was renovated just over a decade ago.
When you come there will be several concurrent exhibitions to look into, and a great deal of material relating to these shows can be found at the centre’s gift shop.
9. La Louve
The name La Louvière derives from the Old French word Menaulu (meigne au leu), meaning “Wolf’s Lair”, and might have something to do with the high number of wolves living in what was then forest in Medieval times.
Still, a name like La Louvière fires the imagination and at some point led to a Rome-like legend of a wolf nursing a human child.
So greeting you on the roundabout at Place de la Louve is a reimagining of Rome’s medieval Capitoline Wolf sculpture, only minus Romulus and Remus.
Inaugurated in 1953, the monument was a collaboration between architect Marcel Depelsenaire and sculptor Alphonse Darville.
10. Domaine de la Louve
For fresh air and greenery you need only travel a couple of kilometres south-west to this well-looked after public park.
A large swathe of Domaine de la Louve has been allowed to grow out, and these flowery meadows are a haven for butterflies in the summer.
There are more than 80 species of trees and shrubs in the park, and if you keep your eyes peeled you may spot a kestrel overhead, while feral parakeets are plentiful.
As for facilities there’s a playground for little ones and an outdoor fitness trail.
11. International Museum of Carnival and Mask
A 15-minute drive to Binche will bring you to this museum tapping into the local UNESCO-recognised carnival folklore, but also collecting international masks and disguises.
The grand setting is an 18th-century former Augustinian school, and the galleries will lead you on a journey through rituals and festivals all over the world.
You’ll learn about masked ceremonies among the Arctic’s indigenous peoples, Asian theatre masks and traditional African rituals.
In 2019-20 the temporary exhibition presented costume, ritualistic objects and masks relating to Brazil’s largest indigenous ethnic group, the Ticuna.
The Binche Carnival takes centre stage, and there’s a new permanent gallery telling you all you need to know about this highly coded celebration.
The exhibition explains the festivities’ Medieval beginnings, and sheds light on the curious “Gilles” who head out onto the streets all day on Shrove Tuesday.
12. Cinéma Stuart
It may sound strange now, but when the current manager of Cinéma Stuart on Rue Sylvain Guyaux took over in 1977 this was the last major cinema in the whole of the Centre region.
Cinéma Stuart goes back another two decades to 1956 but under manager Giovanni Pescatore has become a La Louvière institution, expanding from one auditorium to seven, and staging concerts, seminars and even opera in addition to movies.
Business for Cinéma Stuart is better than ever, even in the face of new modern multiplexes in Mons and Charleroi, but tickets are also cheaper.
The seating is comfy, the popcorn is tasty, although being in Wallonia, movies use full-cast dubbing instead of subtitles.
13. Château de Seneffe
For an easy excursion make the 10-kilometre drive to this 18th-century Neoclassical château belonging to the French Community of Belgium.
Inside you can browse the permanent exhibition, Faste et Intimité (Luxury and Privacy), celebrating 18th-century interior design and decorative arts.
The silverware collection alone is composed of 500 pieces, among them snuff boxes, candelabras, jugs, liturgical objects, cafetières and chandeliers.
These are all cleverly displayed to suit their specific function.
You can also discover the beauty secrets of wealthy 18th-century women and see a real cabinet of curiosity, with Chinese vases, taxidermies and curious spices and plant specimens from all ends of the earth.
Not to forget there’s a 22-hectare estate outside, comprising formal gardens, an orangery (with brasserie), an aviary and an array of 19th-century follies including a Neoclassical theatre.
On weekends you can drop by the “Flavours of Enlightenment” tea room, for tea, coffee and chocolate, all of which were highly coveted in 18th-century France.
14. Ronquières Inclined Plane
At Seneffe the Canal du Centre connects with another important waterway, the 65-kilometre Brussels-Charleroi Canal, which was completed in 1832. If you’ve been inspired by La Louvière’s industrial heritage, there’s more to be found on this canal.
Something special, only about 15 kilometres north of La Louvière, is the Ronquières inclined plane.
This feat of engineering is more than 1,430 metres long and was constructed in the 1960s as an innovative way of helping vessels overcome a slope without waiting to pass through 14 locks.
It does this with the help of two huge caissons mounted on rails and pulled by cables, taking around 22 minutes to pass between the two canal levels.
You could also use the gentle towpaths for a bike ride all the way from La Louvière to Charleroi, which can be done in 90 minutes or so.
15. La Louvière Carnival
As with some carnivals in Wallonia, the one in La Louvière is called Laetare from the Latin for “rejoice”. The event takes place across three days from the Sunday to Shrove Tuesday, and La Louvière’s Gilles are out in force for all three days.
These characters are the stars of the show, wearing absurdly large feather hats and always the life and soul of the party: On the Sunday you’ll find them keeping time with the music for the rondeau (traditional dances) and handing out oranges in the city centre.
Sunday closes with fireworks, and on Monday the Gilles are back out in the morning, making merry.
This is the day of a procession that runs from Place Maugrétout and Place Mansart, and the city’s processional giants are part of an 800-strong parade.
Shrove Tuesday is a colourful mass of fancy dress, and the carnival comes to an end with the Brûlage des Bosses, when a puppet dressed as a Gille is burnt on a bonfire.