The old coal mines of Belgium

In Belgium’s Wallonia region, the coal mines may have shut but their legacy lives on. Go underground – and see how life was for families on the surface.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Bois-du-Luc, La Louvière, Belgium

As I descend into Bois-du-Luc, one of the old coal mines of Belgium, I take one last glance at the rows of old lamps above me.

The stairs are leading me down into a darker depth… not darkness, just darker, and probably completely safe.

Yet, still, I wonder how I have ended up here. This is not chocolate, beer, or European parliaments – all of the things you normally associate with Belgium. Bois-du-Luc is a dirty old mine!

Coal mines of Belgium

But if you know much about industry in Belgium (I didn’t), you’ll know that the production of ‘stuff’ is one of the powerhouses of the country’s economy.

Belgium was one of the first European countries to really embrace the industrial revolution in the 19th century and it created an infrastructure that helped it dominate.

This was helped by a natural location with easy access to seas and rivers, and compounded by the construction of high speed transport to other parts of Europe.

Bois-du-Luc mining site, La Louvière, Belgium

These transport links were (and still are) critical because Belgium doesn’t actually have that many natural resources which it can use for production.

It built its economy around being able to bring in raw materials, process them, and then export them out again.

So we’re talking industries like steel, copper, chemicals, textiles, pharmaceuticals, and much more.

Bois-du-Luc mining site, La Louvière, Belgium

The one natural resource that Belgium had in significant amounts was coal – and the country made the most of it for centuries.

This is how I’ve ended up at Bois-du-Luc, near the town of La Louvière in the Wallonia region. It’s here that four of Belgium’s old coal mines have been listed as a World Heritage Site called ‘Major Mining Sites of Wallonia’.

Major Mining Sites of Wallonia

It was in Wallonia that Belgium’s coal mining industry thrived for several hundred years until the 1970s or so, at which point it had become economically unviable to continue it.

But, even though the boom may have been over, people were sensible enough to recognise the heritage of the period and have preserved much of the infrastructure.

Bois-du-Luc mining site, La Louvière, Belgium

Although there were once lots of different mine sites here, four of them have been added to the World Heritage List. You can see them on a map here.

Although you don’t need to visit every site to get a good sense of the heritage of coal mining in Belgium, each of them is different and shows a different side of the industry.

Grand-Hornu

I think the architecture at Grand-Hornu is the most impressive of the four coal mines. Built in the early 19th century, it is an excellent example of neoclassical industrial heritage.

You can visit the above ground buildings at Grand-Hornu to see inside the heritage buildings. There’s not too much here from the original mining days, though. They normally hold art exhibitions in the spaces.

You can find Bois-du-Luc at Rue Sainte-Louise, 82 
7301 Hornu, Belgium. See it on a map here.

The buildings at Grand-Hornu are open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 – 18:00.
Closed 24, 25, 31 December and 1 January.

To visit Grand-Hornu, it costs €10 for an adult, €6 for concession, and €2 for children (under 6 years old is free).
There is also free entry on the first Sunday of the month.

You can find out more information at the official website.

Bois du Cazier

If you are interested in the history of the region, Bois du Cazier is an interesting site to visit. The original buildings here are used to house museums that tell the story of Wallonia’s mining heritage.

As well as the structures from the mining operations, there is the town that the workers and the families lived in.

There are often interesting exhibitions held here too.

You can find Bois du Cazier at Rue du Cazier, 80 
6001 Marcinelle, Belgium. See it on a map here.

Bois du Cazier is open Tuesday to Friday from 09:00 – 17:00, and on weekends from 10:00 – 18:00.
Closed 23-25 December, 30 December – 1 January, and 6 January – 13 January.

To visit Bois du Cazier, it costs €8 for an adult, €7 for a senior, and €4.50 for children (under 6 years old is free).
There is also free entry on the first Sunday of the month.

You can find out more information at the official website.

Blegny

At Blegny mine you will get the best underground experience, as you take the cage down about 60 metres into the tunnels to see the extraction process and learn more about the working conditions.

The tour then continues with the wash and sorting installations, from the arrival until transport and sale of the coal.

You can find Blegny Mine at Rue Lambert Marlet 23, 4670 Blégny, Belgium. See it on a map here.

Blegny Mine is open on weekends and public holidays from 15 February to 27 December. It’s also open on weekdays from 6 April – 11 September.

The first tour starts at 11:00 and the last one is at 16:00. Check the website for the exact starting times of the other tours.

The tours take about 3.5 hours including the permanent exhibition and the slag heap biotope.

To visit Blegny Mine, it costs €13 for an adult, €11.50 for a senior or child aged 13-18 years old, and €9 for children aged 6-12 years old.

You can find out more information at the official website.

And then there’s the mine that I visited: Bois-du-Luc near La Louvière.

Visiting Bois-du-Luc mine, Belgium

I’ve come to La Louvière because it’s the closest town to the old Bois-du-Luc mine. The mining site closed down in 1973 and has been a museum since 1983.

What’s so great about this site is the way that it’s been protected. There are new exhibits inside some of the old buildings but not much has been changed structurally, other than for safety reasons.

It means that it’s easy to walk through and see everything – but it still feels authentic enough.

Bois-du-Luc mining site, La Louvière, Belgium

It can’t have been too pleasant inside here for the workers – but I seem to think that to myself every time I go into an old mine, like Rammelsberg in Germany or Wieliczka in Poland.

It’s dark, cold, dirty and dangerous. The men would work long hours (especially in the earlier years of its existence) and probably live short lives.

Bois-du-Luc mining site, La Louvière, Belgium

But this is where Belgium’s Bois-du-Luc is particularly interesting because it actually gives the impression that the company cared more for its workers.

Right next to the entrance to the mine, the owners constructed a village for the workers in 1838. It is laid out like a small community with houses for families, places for social functions, shops, churches and all the things you might need.

You can find Bois-du-Luc at Rue Saint-Patrice, 2b, 7110 La Louvière, Belgium. See it on a map here.

You can walk through the village 24 hours a day and there is no entrance fee.

The museum at Bois-du-Luc is open every weekday during the year from 10:00 – 17:00. It is open on weekends and public holidays from May to October from 10:00 – 18:00.

To visit the museum at Bois-du-Luc, it costs €9 for an adult, €8 for those aged 60 and above, €6 for children aged 6-18 and students, and children under 6 are free.

You can find out more information at the official website.

The mining village is all still here today – and people (not related to the mine) live in it. The village reminds me a little of the old company town of Crespi d’Adda that I visited a few years ago in Italy, near Milan.

Bois-du-Luc mining site, La Louvière, Belgium

A mining village in Wallonia

Attention has been paid to the architecture and the urban planning at the mining town of Bois-du-Luc, to create a sense of belonging and calm.

I tend to think it’s aimed more at family members than the workers while themselves – while the men are busy and dirty underground, their wives and children can feel clean and happy up above.

It creates an element of social and domestic cohesiveness that ultimately benefits the company.

Bois-du-Luc mining site, La Louvière, Belgium

And, let’s not kid ourselves, this is all about benefitting the company.

Yes, it organises festivals and music classes and other cultural activities for the workers and their families. But it also creates a culture of dependence where housing, welfare, and community only continue to exist as long as someone is working in the mine.

To leave your job was to lose everything!

Bois-du-Luc mining site, La Louvière, Belgium
Bois-du-Luc mining site, La Louvière, Belgium

I find it really interesting to see both sides of Bois-du-Luc and, by association, both sides of the history of mining in Belgium and Wallonia.

There’s the dangerous and dirty side underground, with its stories of industrial unrest, explosions, and manual labour. This is what kept the economy moving for hundreds of years and helped in the advancement of the country as an economic power.

Bois-du-Luc mining site, La Louvière, Belgium

And then there’s the beautiful friendly side, on ground, visible to passers-by. This is what the company and the country wanted you to see.

It’s probably not too different to life today, really. Belgium may be making its money by producing steel, chemicals, and drugs. But it wants you to see the waffles and architecture.

Making money isn’t always pretty.

THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN LA LOUVIERE

To make it easier to visit Bois-du-Luc, I would recommend staying in La Louviere. You are also close to two of the other mines there.

BUDGET

For a very nice and affordable room, I would recommend Hotel Tristar.

RUSTIC

There’s also the wonderful Hotel Le Val-Fayt, which is set in a traditional 17th-century farmhouse.

LUXURY

And I think the nicest hotel, just out of town, is Au fil de l’eau.

UNESCO logo

This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

6 thoughts on “The old coal mines of Belgium”

  1. I’m so happy you’re writing about these UNESCO sites! Not many people visit these places. Next year I’ll make my way to some UNESCO Heritage listed sites in Belgium as well and this will once again be a great guide!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Dominique. That’s what I love so much about seeing these UNESCO sites. So many of them are relatively unknown and I only make the effort to see them because they’re on the list. But then I discover so much cool stuff I would never have otherwise!

      Reply
  2. Thank you for remembering the Italian miners who immigrate to work in these mines. My dad did. I was borned and raised in Belgium and remember all so well. Grazie.

    Reply
  3. Great article, but i have to argue with “These transport links were (and still are) critical because Belgium doesn’t actually have that many natural resources which it can use for production.” because it does, the most of which are construction materials, silica sand and carbonates.

    Reply

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