Last summer, I spent a week in a lovely old half-timber house in Cleebourg, northern Alsace (known in German as Elsass) with my immediate German family; seven days of feasting and fun in celebration of my father-in-law’s 70th birthday. My sister-in-laws travelled from Lake Constance (the Bodensee) and Copenhagen, but us four Wiesbadeners hired a car and navigated our way down through the Pfalz, a scenic drive that took us along some of the southernmost section of the 85km Deutsche Weinstraße, or German Wine Route. We crossed the border at Schweigen-Rechtenbach, a German municipality famous for the Deutsches Weintor (German Wine Gate), which marks the beginning (or end) of the route, and continued into Alsace.
Alsace has changed hands between Germany and France several times over the last 150 years, and before that, it was wrestled over almost continuously by the two conflicting superpowers. This history is reflected in the region’s culture, its food and wine, in the architecture and the language. Crossing the border into France, many of the houses look like they belong on the German side of the border, though the gardens quite clearly shift from ordered and tidy on the German side to carefree and pretty on the French. Many of the towns and villages in the region have both French and German names, and this close to the border, most people speak both languages too – French being the official one – as well variations of Alsatian, a Germanic dialect that seems to be sadly becoming less and less commonly spoken. And of course, the regional food and drink has been heavily influenced by the occupation of both countries, too.
Staying in Cleebourg
Cleebourg, a commune (France’s smallest administrative division, a bit like a civil township or rural parish) in the Bas-Rhin department of Alsace, is famous for its vineyards and less than a 20 minute drive from the German border. The village is a collection of colourful half-timbered houses plus church, school, a couple of wineries and in terms of amenities, not much else. If you want bread, you can pre-order it from the local baker, who delivers to the village on set days; for all other edible provisions you have to either drive to a supermarket (there’s are a couple of Matches and a Coop a 15 minute drive away, a Carrefour a little further, and a Penny as you cross the border) or visit the larger neighbouring town of Wissembourg (Weißenburg) on market day (see below).
Cleebourg village is surrounded by vineyards good for hiking and biking, and there’s fishing and horse riding close by, but it’s really a good spot for enjoying a bit of peace and quiet with friends or family, or a base for exploring the region, rather than a place to immerse yourself in local life.
We stayed at Gîte Vignoble de Cleebourg, a gorgeous little half-timber house that somehow fitted 13 of us in with no trouble at all. There was enough space to hide oneself away if necessary (and with five of our party being four years old or under, that was sometimes very much necessary), but we also had a sizable breakfast area, long dining table and a covered terrace off the kitchen to congregate for meals – as well as a huge garden with pool and various toys, and a small sitting room for huddling together to shout at the Euro 2016 football games whilst drinking the local beer. There was also an honesty cellar offering a good selection of regional wines.
We walked off some of the food and drink by strolling around the vineyards and exploring Wissembourg, but on the hottest days, we simply enjoyed the sun and each others’ company at home, dipping into the (safely fenced off) pool, drinks in hand, as our littlest tribe members bounced endlessly on the trampoline.
The nearby town of Wissembourg is the perfect place for a leisurely amble and a gentle taking-in of sights, perhaps with a stop for a coffee or ice cream along the way. Despite it being July, the town wasn’t particularly busy when we visited, presumably since it’s a little more off the beaten track than the (much) more famous and touristy towns of Colmar and Strasbourg.
What Wissembourg is full of, however, is utterly charming 15th and 16th century half-timber buildings, many of which line the Lauter canal, a national heritage site with a water gate that was built in 1748. There are more notable historical sights in the form of the huge gothic Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (Église Saints-Pierre-et-Paul) and the classicist City Hall to the Maison du Sel, pictured below, which was built in 1448 as a hospital, later used to store salt, and then turned into an abattoir. The protestant Church of St. John (Église Saint-Jean-l’Évangéliste), built between the 12th and 16th centuries, features an organ that despite being mechanically true to the North German baroque tradition, has a remarkably contemporary outer case.
We were sadly not around for the Wissembourg weekly market (Saturdays at the Place de la République; there’s also a monthly organic market in nearby Steinseltz), but we happily poked our heads into various food shops as we wandered around town, picking up regional cheeses and locally-made terrines to take home. The shop of the Riquewihr cheese cellars (Cave d’affinage de Riquewihr, about 90 minutes south of Wissembourg by car – they offer cellar tours) on Rue Nationale is worth stopping at for its excellent hard cheeses and dried sausages; and the artisan bakery Boulangerie Patisserie Junck opposite has wonderful breads and other baked goods. Walk five minutes down Place du Marché aux Choux to one of France’s most revered pastry chefs and chocolatiers Daniel Rebert for high end chocolates, pastries and desserts (more on those below), where I can confirm you can also get a very good lunch.
Eating and drinking in Alsace
Alsace is famous for it’s cuisine: for its choucroute (Sauerkraut, often served garnie, with sausages and salted meats), its tarte flambée (Flammkuchen, a very thin, crisp bread dough most traditionally covered in crème fraîche, lardons and sliced onion), its Baeckeoffe (a very, very meaty stew). But I won’t lie: we didn’t do much culinary exploration on this trip. Dinner out would have been a bit chaotic logistically speaking, which is a shame as there are some highly-regarded restaurants in the area, so instead we cooked together at home and ate nearly all of our meals together there.
This did mean of course that we happily scoured the local supermarkets for the usual French treats (saucisson sec, tick), and bought vast selections of cured meats, terrines, pâtés and impossibly good cheeses home to enjoy as a sort of German-French fusion breakfast. We served them alongside baguettes, croissants, yoghurts and – oddly, but this is the Dietz family – a homemade Kugelhopf (a yeasted, almost bread-like cake) generously brought over by the owners of the gîte.
When it came to my father-in-law’s birthday, we went all out on celebratory sweets from Daniel Rebert (see the Wissembourg section above). It was extravagant, certainly, but it’s not often you celebrate a 70th birthday, and these were the sort of decadent sweets – chocolate truffle cake, chocolate-cream-filled slices, an assortment of colourful macarons – that were worth every penny, and particularly good washed down with a bottle of Sekt that had travelled with us across the border.
On our last evening, my mother-in-law treated us to her own version of choucroute: a mountain of straggly Sauerkraut cooked with apple and onion and served with two lurid pink sausages (I’ve had various suggestions on Twitter as to what exactly they were, but no-one seems to know for certain). It was the perfect final meal to a very French-German holiday.
Would I recommend a trip to this area? Yes, obviously. I mean, look at the photos. Wissembourg is a charming town to visit, and it would make a good base for exploring the north of Alsace. Cleebourg was lovely too, but was a little too quiet for our rabble: we really enjoyed our week in the gîte and it was the perfect house for a family gathering, but we couldn’t have stayed there without a car (or three), and we missed being within walking distance of somewhere to have coffee or a glass of wine, or to buy a baguette. But with the Alsatian wine route (Route des vins d’Alsace) starting up some 75km south of Cleebourg in Marlenheim, just west of Strasbourg, the area would make a good stopping-off point during a German-Alsatian wine tour. Our brief stay in Alsace definitely gave me a taste for exploring more of the region – and, of course, the food.
All links are in English.
★ The Pfalz tourist board, German Wine Route and Southern (German) Wine Route
★ Northern Alsace tourism board and the Alsace Wine Route
★ We stayed at Gite Vignoble de Cleebourg
★ Day Trips from Cleebourg
★ Cleebourg winery (details events such as wine walks and tastings)
★ Wissembourg Tourist Information
★ A guide to the food and wine of Alsace by Christian Schiller.