BETASOM in Bordeaux

At once indestructible and fragile, BETASOM (the Bordeaux Submarine Base) is a reminder of the Second World War. It has become a place to host cultural events, although it hasn’t yet found its own rhythm nor a modus operandi. But the building itself is fascinating and tells a part of Bordeaux’s history.

A huge black 43,000m² concrete shell, on the edge of theBassins à flot area, with its former links to the Bordeaux Port and fed by the water of the Garonne, BETASOM seems full of secrets. I have to actively make the decision to go there, since it’s in an area away from the centre of Bordeaux, Bacalan, which doesn’t always enjoy an excellent reputation but isn’t dangerous.

The Submarine Base was built by the Todt organisation between 1941 and 1943, using Spanish refugee labour and the compulsory labour service (STO) to house and repair German army submarines which travelled up the Garonne from the Atlantic and the Gironde estuary. Seen as a taboo place for many years, it’s the subject of all sorts of outlandish fantasies. When I was at secondary school and the base was closed, friends used to boast about climbing it to visit it in secret – at night, for that extra little thrill.

Nowadays, even though it can be explored when it hosts exhibitions, the Submarine Base retains its mysterious feel. When I step inside, it feels like I’m entering another world: the noise of the surrounding city can no longer be heard and there’s scant natural light.

I walk over the gangways which span the dark water of the cells in which submarines used to glide. I tour the concrete walkways which separate the cells from each other. On the walls, I’ve found written instructions in German which have almost been erased and the remains of materials for repairs.

In the darkness, the walls and their openings are reflected in the water, creating surprising vistas. In the silence, I can hear the slightest sounds: the rustling wings of pigeons which have settled there, cats running around furtively, having found refuge in this extraordinary place and drops of water from leaks as they hit the ground.

With its concrete roof, which is over 9 metres thick to protect it from bombing, the Submarine Base has resisted all human attacks and seems invincible.

But the passing of time has had an effect. Of the eleven cells which housed U-boat submarines, only six are open – the others are in too poor condition. The structure is still solid but leaks let water in, the iron framework has been attacked by rust and concrete crumbles or sprouts with mould.

Witness to a painful, not so distant past, the Submarine Base – which is set to undergo building work – now offers unusual surroundings for innovative cultural projects.

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