Wissembourg, Weißenburg in German, is situated just beyond the French-German border. The history of the town was German (well, there was no Germany in those times, so let’s say part of the Holy Roman Empire) until the late 17th century, then it became French property. Further on the government and the border lines changed a couple of times. The changes of history have left their marks. Like in most of Alsace, the culture is a mix of French and German-Alsatian although French has become the predominant language. The cuisine has adopted the best of both...
The roots of the town lie in the early middle ages with the foundation of the Benedictine monastery, a free imperial abbey with a lot of influence and wealth. Later on the town developed around the abbey. The old town is very well kept and its inhabitants, and its tourist office, have a sense of beauty and romanticism... Old houses, flowers, the little river, narrow bridges... certain views can be called a romantic overkill.
The town is rather small, however, and the main attractions can be seen in half a day. Add time for lunch and a coffee break, a leisurely stroll and a rest on a bench on the ramparts, and you have a perfect day trip destination.
From the train station it is a short walk into the old town through a little park. The footpath leads through a medieval gate next to where the river Lauter exits the town wall. The building by the river used to be a water mill. A large millstone has been put up on the footpath as reference to how the powers of the water have been used in former times. A barrage controlled the current.
The Lauter canal runs right through the town and was used for various purposes. A few steps further upstream by the bridge, steps lead down to water level. The spot has been covered with a roof to provide some protection from the weather. This is where the women of the town used to do their laundry in the water of the river.
From this spot, all streets lead into the old town. My preferred route is keeping right along Rue des Écoles. In the square on the left there is the synagogue, a small 1960s or 1970s building. The gothic architecture on the right is more spectacular. This is the former Dominical church. now known as Centre Culturel Le Dominicain. The monastery was closed down in the French Revolution. In recent years what was left of the church and convent buildings has been turned into a cultural centre.
Then we reach Rue Nationale, the main street of the town. A tall stone building from the renaissance era, now seat of a bank, is the first eyecatcher. Rue nationale has many little shops, some cafes and restaurants. I am particularly fond of the bakeries. Perfect if you want to treat yourselves to sweet cake or pastry, or to an Alsatian speciality, a cake named Kougelhopf.
Most pâtisséries sell Kougelhopf, cakes from yeast dough baked in a round mould with a hole in the middle, a very typical shape. The Kougelhopf (in German: „Gugelhupf“) is a traditional Alsatian cake with raisins and almonds. They have it in different sizes, I also saw (and bought and tried) a very small one-person variety, good if you just want to taste it. However, Kougelhopf is not as sweet as other cakes. It is not supposed to be served with coffee or tea. The appropriate drink to have with this cake is a dry Gewürztraminer, a variety of white wine that has a flowery, perfumed flavour. In Wissembourg I also found a sweeter variety, entitled „Kougelhopf douce“.
The Northern Quarter and Protestant Church
Instead of following Rue Nationale straight to the town hall and the abbey church, I suggest a loop through the lanes on the other side. The quarter between Rue nationale and the ramparts is the best preserved part of old Wissembourg. This is a residential quarter with authentic flair, narrow streets and historical houses, some half-timbered, but most built from stone and covered in plaster. The pale reddish and ochre colours are typical for Northern Alsace.
Above some doors the winemakers‘ sign is displayed. The sign of two crossed knives in the shape of a sickle is displayed on several houses all over town, also in other quarters, for example in the side streets of s'Bruch. These are the typical vine-dresser’s knives and indicate the houses where winemakers used to live, probably (I guess) members of a certain guild.
The prettiest half-timbered house in this quarter, if not in the whole town, is certainly Musée Westercamp in Rue du Musée, at the foot of the northern ramparts. The woodwork of the facade is decorated with elaborate woodcarvings. The museum seems to be closed for good, nevertheless I recommend walking by for a look at the building.
The alleys finally lead to a little square with a medieval church, Église de Saint-Jean, the Church of St John Baptist. In the middle ages it used to be the parish church of Weißenburg while the abbey church served for the monastery alone.
In 1536 the reformation according to the Strasbourg reformator Martin Bucer was introduced. The church stayed protestant until 1684.
Due to the laws of Louis XIV it then became a simultaneous church which was used both by catholics and protestants. In the revolution it became a „Temple of Reason“ but since 1802 it has been the sole property of the protestant community.
The originally Romanesque church underwent profound changes throughout the centuries. To obtain more space the pillars and vaults have been removed and the room covered with a flat wooden ceiling. World War II has caused notable damage but the church has been repaired. The sacristy contains precious 14th century frescoes but these can only be visited throughout limited hours on Saturdays. Otherwise, the church is open daily.
For the best view of the church and the adjacent old parsonage, climb the ramparts.
A self-guided tourist trail leads along the remains of both the medieval and the 18th century fortifications. It is well marked and the different attractions are all explained, detailed in French and a short summary in German and English. The whole walk takes about an hour. Maps (apologies for the lousy photo) that show the trail are put up in several spots so you can pick any part you are interested in.
Photographers, I recommend this trail even if you are not that much into military history because it leads to many fine viewpoints.
The trail touches the medieval wall with towers and gates along the south and southwest, the gate tower and the romantic canal in the Bruch, and the 18th century ramparts along the northern edge of the old town.
In the late 17th century Louis XIV annexed the whole Alsace, which was confirmed in the peace treaty of Rijswijk in 1697. Weißenburg became Wissembourg, and it became a border town. In the 18th century its fortifications were enlarged and modernized. Parts of the baroque fortress with its high ramparts are still visible along the northern flank of the old town. The ramparts trail shows them. The Tour de la Poudrière, a tower on the ramparts, was keeping watch of the city gate. On the outer side the dry moat and contrescarpe are well preserved. The ramparts used to be bare, they are now covered in trees and serve as park and promenade.
The medieval Stephen’s Gate that lead into the town from the north disappeared from the light of day in the 18th century when the French built the much bigger baroque ramparts above it. Excavations in recent years unearthed the arches and walls of the gate. These are visible from the ramparts trail.
The Town Centre
Triangular Place de la République is the centre of bourgeois Wissembourg. The two main streets, Rue Nationale and Rue de la République, meet here and make the triangular square (huh?) a prominent location in the townscape. The baroque town hall (1741-1752) occupies the northern side. During my summer visit it was still decorated for the celebration of July 14, the national holiday and anniversary of the beginning of the French Revolution, judging from the abundance of French flags and garlands. The coats of arms in the gable have been removed. I wonder whose coats of arms have originally been under the golden crown.
The street in the third corner runs towards the bridge over Lauter canal that leads into the realms of Weißenburg Abbey. On the left side just before the bridge there is the house with the fanciest roof in town: Maison du Sel, the former salt storage. The timberwork of the huge roof is crooked and twisted in an amazing way – best view is from Place du Saumon beyond the canal. Maison du Sel nowadays contains an upscale restaurant. This area between Place de la République and the abbey has a number of restaurants in various price scales – plenty of options to try any Alsatian speciality from Flammkueche (Tarte flambée) to frog legs, depending on the preferences of the individual concerned.
In the ground plan of Wissembourg the division into two separate entities is still visible: There is the bourgeois town, and there is the abbey. The canal divides them; the ‚borgder‘ is most obvious along Quai Anselmann. Administration as well as religious denomination were different: While the town joined the reformation, the abbey stayed with catholic faith.
The majestic Romanesque and gothic abbey church is Wissembourg’s main sight. The Benedictine Abbey of Wissembourg, or Weißenburg, used to be one of the wealthiest and most influential monasteries in the middle ages. Its status was that of a free imperial abbey. The gothic abbey church still tells of its great past.
Later Weißenburg became property of the Bishops of Speyer, who included the Weißenburg coat of arms, the golden gate on red ground, in theirs. In the French Revolution the abbey was secularized, the convent buildings partly demolished, most of the church furnishing taken away. The church became the catholic parish church of the town in the 19th century.
Most of the present furnishing like altars, pulpit etc. is not medieval but 19th century historism. Among the church’s art treasures are to be mentioned: the gothic Sepulchre of Christ in the southern side nave, and the 13th/14th century stained glass windows in the choir.
The great organ on the gallery in the west is in a miserable state and has not been played for at least 40 years. Donations are being collected for its restoration.
The gothic cloister has been demolished after the closing of the monastery in the French Revolution. Only one and a half wings are preserved at all, and these are lacking their gothic vaults and the tracery is damaged. Tombstones of abbots and monks have been lined up against the wall.
A little chapel off the cloister is the oldest part of the abbey that still exists – it may well be the oldest building in the whole town. The architecture is early Romanesque. The chapel was consecrated in 1033 and dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul, the patron saints of the abbey.
In summer 2009 the chapel was used for an exhibition of contemporary religious art with paintings, in 2010 they were having a new exhibition with reproductions of paintings by Caravaggio. For the first time I was able to enter the chapel instead of just peeping through the grille.
This chapel hosts a tiny picture which is of great significance in the world of art history: The little round stained glass piece with the face of Christ was created around 1060/65 and is one of the oldest known stained glass paintings. It was discovered in the abbey church. The original has been transferred to the Musée de l' oeuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg. The one in the chapel is a copy, inserted in a modern stained glass window depicting an abstract cross.
While the cloister and convent have been demolished, other buildings in the abbey grounds are still standing. They have been dedicated to new purposes. The present sous-prefecture may have been the abbot’s or guests’ quarter. The row of barns round the corner rue Stanislas/place de Saumon is easily recognizable from the big gates and high roofs. These must have been part of the abbey’s economy buildings.
Jardin de Stanislas is a small shop near the abbey church. It is situated at the back of a well-kept garden in baroque style with boxwood hedges and old fruit trees. Enter the garden through the gate in the wall opposite the entrance of the abbey church. The garden is worth a look and (photographers!) provides a pleasant foreground for the southern facade of the church.
Keep in mind that this is someone’s private garden and not a public park. Stay on the path that leads to the shop, and keep your hands off the fruit, no matter how yummy it looks... I admit it took me a lot of self-restraint not to steal a sample from the Mirabelle tree but I succeeded...
There used to be a very pretty shop selling arts and crafts, decorations and knickknack in these premises. Unfortunately this shop has closed down. In the meantime a florist shop has been opened, which I have not yet seen. But I assume that with these new tenants the garden will be kept better than ever.
The name of the shop referred to the Polish King Stanislaus (Stanisław) Leszczyński who spent some of his exile years in Wissembourg together with his daughter Maria, later the spouse of King Ludwig XV, and Queen of France. After losing his crown to the Saxon Elector August the Strong, Stanislaus and his family moved from country to country and hardly stayed anywhere for more than a few years. In Wissembourg they inhabited Palais Stanislas, a baroque town palace which is now occupied by the town hospital.
s’Bruch – Bitche: The Most Romantic Part of Town
Another small waterflow encircles the back boundaries of the abbey grounds. Behind, the most beautiful quarter of Wissembourg is awaiting visitors‘ cameras. Bruch, Bitche in French, is a medieval suburb that developed outside the town along the river Lauter. This is the cutest part of the town. If ever you see Wissembourg photos showing a canal and old houses and lots of flowers on tiny bridges, this is where they were taken. A romantic overkill, if ever there is one... The photos speak for themselves, don’t they?
The spot where the river Lauter enters the town on the western side and divides into two branches has been heavily fortified with a gate tower known by its old German name of Hausgenossenturm. Next to it a river lock controls the amount of water that flows either into or around the town.
A short walk further upstream from Hausgenossenturm outside the old town you reach Walkmühle, an old water mill that now is an upscale hotel and restaurant. The name tells that this mill was not used for milling grain but for the fulling („walken“) of wool, felt, or fabric.
We have reached the far end of the old town. The return could, for example, lead through the side streets of s’Bruch to Grabenloch. The meeting point of two river branches on the southern edge of the town has been heavily fortified in the middle ages. To this very day it is still known by the German name. Only very small openings in the wall allow the water to pass but no boat would get through. This is where the most impressive remains of the medieval fortifications are preserved. A little park with foot and bike trails has been created along the moats.
A footpath leads over a small hill and past Palais Stanislas; it allows a view into the garden. Then continue along Rue Stanislas until the end of the street. On the left you’ll spot the crooked roof of Maison du Sel again, but I recommend keeping right instead because there ist hat one hidden viewpoint which is easily missed, but should not be missed. The very one that my start photo has been taken from.
In Rue de l’Ordre Teutonique, I noticed the entrance to a small passage underneath a house, named Schlupfgasse, with a sign that announced a picturesque view of the river Lauter 20 m behind.
Curious me could not resist checking that out.
This spot is well hidden, if you find it, walk in!!! You come along a narrow footpath between walls and end up on a small bridge across the stream. The view goes straight to the spire of the abbey church and... voilà!