Bassins des Lumières, Man’s Awesome Capacity to Destroy or Exhilarate

After a week of perfect weather, another glorious morning fueled our footsteps as we made our way beneath the Porte de Bourgogne to catch a northbound tram. It was our last day in Bordeaux, a city of 250,000 residents with an enviable transportation network comprised of 4 tram lines, 80 bus routes, a water taxi, and 2000 self-service bicycles. We were headed to a WWII submarine bunker that is now home to a spectacular sound and light show, Les Bassins des Lumières.

Porte de Bourgogne, Bordeaux
Erected in 1757, the Porte de Bourgogne marked the official entrance to Bordeaux on the old road from Paris.

Once seated on the tram, my gaze alternated between the brackish mix of salt and fresh water flowing in the Garonne over my right shoulder and in front of me, a lighthearted band of adolescent passengers, staring into their smartphones and congruously swaying atop fashionable sneakers. When we reached the Place des Quinconces, the line turned away from the river. Gradually, the municipal flowers, ancient architecture, alluring storefronts, and stone-paved streets of the centre-ville faded behind us. After a 15-minute ride, we descended into the sterile, impersonal setting of an office park.

Place des Quinconces, Bordeaux
A tram rolls through the Place des Quinconces, one of the largest city squares in Europe.

From there, our mile-long walk to La Base Sous-Marine provided an oddly comforting reminder that not every landscape in France is picturesque or even well-planned. The Boulevard Alfred Daney is tree-lined and equipped with a bike lane but the development beyond the easement is much like any industrial park in the United States: sprawling and haphazard; largely paved, with windowless rectangular buildings covered by aluminum siding; some properties fenced with gated entries; the area devoid of spots for humans to gather aside from a McDonald’s.

Out of the Daylight and Into the Dark

I no longer recall what I was expecting, but when we reached the bunker, my heart sank a little. The structure was so imposing and so unsightly, that all anticipation of artistry or amusement evaporated, eroded by skepticism. I had an urge to ask Andy if he still wanted to see the exhibit, but turning toward him I could see that he was characteristically unfazed.

Well ahead of our scheduled arrival time, we proceeded through an empty queue of roped-off switchbacks. Despite our earliness, a welcoming guide ushered us into the building and gave us a quick rundown of what to expect. She explained that 2 shows were perpetually looping, one featuring the art and architecture of Venice, the other works of Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla. The immersive exhibit stretched across 4 former submarine basins and we could walk wherever we wanted for as long as we wanted.

She led us to a short hallway, traversed by a series of thick black curtains that hung like wavering mud flaps, impenetrable by light. In short order, we found ourselves stepping inside the first basin where Byzantine art, accompanied by percussive strings of Vivaldi, danced on every visible vertical surface of a massive space. Despite the explosion of color and melody, the sensation that predominated was the smell of water and dank concrete. Having exited bright sunshine just a few minutes earlier, I carefully advanced each footstep, half expecting to fall into the black pool that reflected the animated walls.

Scene from Venice, from Canaletto to Monet
A scene from “Venice, from Canaletto to Monet” projected onto the walls of a WWII U-boat pen.

A Marvelous Transformation

I hadn’t anticipated the water and initially, I couldn’t discern where the pool began nor the guardrails surrounding it. At the time, I had no idea that the water was 40 feet deep. My growing fascination with the setting was heightened by the overpowering smell of corrosion and intense pitch blackness engulfing the shimmering surfaces. I scanned in all directions for other people and saw a handful of silhouettes at the opposite end of the 360-foot-long chamber. Greedily pleased to know that we nearly had the place to ourselves, I removed my face mask and began to relax as I took in the beauty of the dazzling images that floated past.

Bassins des Lumières
A zoomed-in view across one of the submarine pens in the Bassins des Lumières.

For the next 30 minutes, we basked in an illuminated history of Venetian art à la best-animated-screen-saver-imaginable. As we moved along the edges of the digitized gallery, we could see that 2 parallel corridors intersected each end of the basin. Standing at the end of one of these corridors yielded a view that bisected 3 additional submarine pens. Simply experiencing the sheer size of these 4 imposing cells seemed almost worth the 14-euro ticket price.

Bassins des Lumières, Bordeaux
A view looking across all 4 submarine pens, each animated with slight variations of the same digitized art show.

The Wonders of Technology

By the time we’d wandered through each of the basins the novelty had worn off and we started to contemplate the technology at play. It was apparent that multiple projectors must be highlighting many of the surfaces. There seemed to be no shadows from people walking around the galleries, even on the floors. The crispness of the display meant that the projectors had to be precisely synchronized and aimed. Some of the basin’s long walls were lined with large openings. Yet, we could see no trace of vagrant light escaping into the black recesses within these gaps.

I’ve since learned that over 100 projectors are used to bring the grey, cadaverous walls to life. Andy and I have laughed about the synchronization of these projectors. This is the kind of application that might have given us a slight appreciation for the mandatory linear algebra class—universally despised by all engineering majors—at the University of Michigan where we met. But, I doubt it. Only later did we come to appreciate the usefulness of what at the time seemed like arbitrary ways of manipulating matrices of numbers. The coordination of Les Bassins’s projectors, however, likely relies on such calculations.

Projected floor, Bassins des Lumières
This projection of the floor of a Venetian palace remained immutable, even as people wandered across it.

Le Cube at Les Bassins des Lumières

After an hour, we realized that the show had cycled to the point where we entered. Andy had noticed a doorway leading to a second exhibit called Le Cube which he wanted to check out. Still spellbound, I settled onto a bench to watch the entirety of the two main attractions a second time. After 20 minutes, Andy was back at my side. “Carol, you’ve got to see the cube!”

When satisfied that I’d experienced enough of the basins, I headed to Le Cube, a large sound-proof and light-proof room featuring the innovations of contemporary filmmakers working in immersive art. Inside, the 8-meter high walls and floor appear to be seamlessly coated with highly polished black polyurethane. The floor dimensions are roughly 15 x 15 meters. The best way I can think of to describe Le Cube is to say that I’ve never dropped acid but after watching the 3-surreal films that whirled, mushroomed, and pulsated across the room’s surfaces, I feel like I have. Below is a short excerpt from Recoding Entropia by François Vautier.

My phone’s camera doesn’t do it justice but hopefully you get the idea.

Humankind’s Troubled Existence

In total, we spent around two and a half hours at Les Bassins des Lumières. I left somewhat reluctantly, knowing that repeated viewings would undoubtedly reveal new angles and images that I’d thus far failed to notice. But, it was time to move on. Outside, the 90-degree heat, bright sunlight, and industrial setting contrasted sharply with the dark, cool basins, that had immersed us in color. We walked to the other side of the port and looked back at the ominous structure.

I doubt that I’ll ever again gaze upon a space so full of contradiction: one moment horrified by the evil minds that ordered its construction, the next in awe of the artisans and technologists behind the scenes—those that made the building possible and those responsible for its modern-day transformation.

As we walked back toward the Garonne along the Quai des Caps, my thoughts staggered precariously along an internal mental tightrope. On one side lay despair and hopelessness, on the other side enlightenment and promise. How is it possible to recover from the countless atrocities that humankind seems destined to repeat? I wondered. Yet, somehow we manage to do it. Our penchant for innovation and compassion seems to be as well-ingrained as our destructive and egocentric impulses. And, thank goodness for the obliviousness of sunshine, and rivers, and bands of carefree teens.

Venice, from Canaletto to Monet
Simulated sunrise from “Venice, from Canaletto to Monet”, Bassins des Lumières.

End Note

For more on the history of the U-boat bunkers that Nazi Germany stationed along the coast of France, see The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Germany’s Massive U-Boat Bunkers.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. Wonderful descriptions of such an ethereal experience!

  2. How great that you got to spend time in France despite Covid!

  3. Perhaps i shouldn’t comment, since I’m not really the target audience for this type of display…..

    The images of Venice are clearly vivid and impressive, but it seems to me that the aesthetic effect would be overwhelmed by the oppressive and claustrophobic physical setting. You suggested as much in noting “the smell of water and dank concrete”, “the overpowering smell of corrosion and intense pitch blackness”, “the grey, cadaverous walls”. It sounds like you never escape awareness of where you actually are — the rotting hulk of a generations-old evil submarine base. If the place was to be made into a public attraction, I would think a museum dedicated to the submarine warfare for which it was built would be more fitting.

    Still, that’s a second-hand reaction — you were there and I wasn’t, and I doubt anything in the world could induce me to enter a dark underground enclosed space with 40-foot pools of water in it. If I ever find myself with some free time in Bordeaux, I’ll probably spend it hanging out around the Porte de Bourgogne, for the scenery.

    As for The Cube, while I’m sure the technology employed creates an impressive visual spectacle, abstract geometric art just doesn’t do much for me. Chacun à son goût.

    • I’m normally very claustrophobic but this space is so huge that I never felt closed in despite the dark and dank surroundings. I can believe, however, that the ambiance and history of the setting might be difficult for some people to overcome. My overall experience was wonderful and I would definitely recommend Les Bassins and even visit them again.

      That’s a great idea to create a museum about u-boat history and submarine warfare inside one of the bases. There are 5 of these gigantic structures and I don’t think Bordeaux’s is the largest.

      If you ever visit, there is plenty to see in Bordeaux and I highly recommend renting one of their e-bikes for an afternoon. Half of their fleet are augmented with motors when you feel a need for boost.

  4. Linear algebra? There are some classes we take and hate, until we find it’s use. For me it was accounting. Endlessly boring but very useful once you’re an entrepreneur to argue with the accountants.
    One discipline I loved was operations reseach. Just fab. Never got to use it again except conceptually. When a problem has no solutions, it means you have too many constraints. Look at each one and see which you can ease up.
    Just a note: I had trouble opening some of your pix. Maybe you can have someone else open your post and check?
    Au revoir.

    • My masters degree is in Operations Research so I eventually came to have a deep appreciation for linear algebra. The problem with forcing college freshman to take an entire semester of the stuff is that they have no context in which to form an appreciation for the countless operations they’re expected to essentially memorize.

      But I agree, accounting for me was even worse in college. I barely passed. Less than 10 years later, however, I ended up needing to create and analyze financial statements when Andy and I ran our own businesses. I didn’t really like that part of entrepreneurship but finally understood concepts that completely escaped me as an undergrad.

      Thanks for telling me about the images. My blog had a series of issues yesterday that I thought had been resolved but this one escaped notice. Still working on it.

      A tout à l’heure mon ami.

      • Your masters is in O.R.? Fantastic. I tell you I loved that stuff. Not sure I could solve a problem anymore, but it still is with me inside.
        There probably is an age for everything. Or a good teacher who makes you see how it can be used. For me it was very clear.
        So there were issues on your blog? Hope I helped.
        Bonne soirée mon amie.

        • You did help! Took a while to resolve the issues but everything should be working now.

          Guess what? I’m going to a talk tonight at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It is the first museum in the United States to purchase a Van Gogh. Tomorrow, a new exhibit opens featuring Van Gogh works from around the world. I’m attending a talk tonight about the exhibit and Josien van Gogh, great-grandniece of Vincent van Gogh, and her daughter Janne Heling, chair of the Vincent van Gogh Foundation, will be there. Not bad for a little fly over state. 🙂

          • Glad it helped.
            Fly over state? Come on!
            The US did not have a Van Gogh? Wow. Must be “hors de prix” now.
            And I had no idea Van Gogh still had relations. Must descendants of his brother Theo.
            (I went to Auvers-sur-Oise. The two brothers lying side by side are very moving).
            Nice that the family should still be involved…
            How was the talk?

  5. Yes, thank goodness that we have the good with the bad. Even though we seem to repeat our mistakes we also have this way of persevering. What an incredible experience you had. I watched the short clip on YT and it seems so incredible what technology can do these day.

  6. I appreciated your enabling us to make this journey with you as you relived it. I’m not sure the setting would enliven me as it did you—based on your description, my olfactory sensors/censors may have driven me away. But reading your impressions was enjoyable and enlightening.

    • Glad you enjoyed the read Annie. It didn’t take long to lose my awareness of the scent and even the horror of the regime that built the place was forgotten for most of my visit.

      To tear these bases down would cost a fortune. Leaving them as reminders of man’s potential for evil makes sense to me. Further, converting them into spaces of beauty or edification is a testimony to man’s ability to triumph over adversity. Europeans seem to have a much greater appreciation for the importance of weaving the past into the current day.

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