The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors

When most people think of the fall of the Roman Empire, they think of hordes of howling barbarians swarming over the frontier and laying waste to civilization. That’s only partially true. In reality, many tribes were invited, and even those that weren’t came with their families not just to conquer, but to settle. This is why historians prefer the term “Migration Period”. And although these tribes conquered, the Romans ended up changing them more than they changed the Romans.

Take the gravestone pictured here, for instance. The product of “barbarians” who had taken Spain, it has Christian symbolism and is written in Latin. It reads, “Cantonus, servant of God, lived 87 years. He rested in peace on 22 December 517 AD.”

The Visigoths spread over much of the western Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Their attacks prompted the emperor Honorius to withdraw his legions from Britain so he could get reinforcements, but this didn’t stop the Visigoths from sacking Rome itself in 410 AD. Like other Germanic tribes, they came to settle, and eventually moved as far as southern France and Spain. There they took over the government but left the society pretty much intact. Roman bureaucrats still ran day-to-day affairs. The Visigoths were already Christian like most Romans by this time, and since they lacked a written language they started using Latin.

Their kingdom lasted from 475 to 711, when they were defeated by the Umayyid Muslims. That’s a long time, but the Visigoths have basically become the Invisigoths, a forgotten people sandwiched in time between the Romans and the Moors. Why? Because they had little effect on the people they ruled. The Iberian Romans continued pretty much as they were, developing from the crumbling Classical era into the Early Middle Ages. These Ibero-Romans vastly outnumbered their Visigothic rulers. The only Visigothic word to make it into Spanish is verdugo, which means “executioner”.

If you look hard enough, you can still see traces of the Visigoths. Four of their churches still stand, two in Spain and two in Portugal. One of the best is San Pedro de la Nave near Campillo, Spain. Two shots of this church are in the gallery. Bits of other buildings have been incorporated into later structures. In Mérida, a Moorish fortress called the Alcazaba uses a bunch of pillars taken from a Visigothic hospital. They’re shown in the gallery too. The Visigoths had a distinct artistic style of carvings in low relief, showing plants or animals or people in Biblical or battle scenes. The Visigothic Museum in Mérida has an excellent collection of these.

The Germanic tribes were also good at making jewelry, and the Visigoths were no exception. They liked huge, intricately carved pins called fibulae to hold their cloaks, and wore bejeweled belt buckles big enough to make any Texan proud. Several of their chunky gold crowns also survive, with the names of their kings spelled out in gold letters hanging like a fringe around the edge.

So when visiting Spain’s many museums and historic sights, keep an eye out for remnants of Spain’s underrated rulers!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The wine and cuisine of Extremadura!


Brits are worst-dressed tourists in Europe

When it comes to dressing horribly, the British are the best of the worst. According to a survey conducted by TripAdvisor, Brits are the worst-dressed tourists roaming the Continent. According to the Telegraph, the Germans and Americans are next in line when it comes to fashion-challenged tourists. The survey covered several other topics, as well.

The French may be well-dressed, but they are the worst when it comes to checking their emails while they are traveling. 93% of Britons make an attempt to speak the local language while on holiday while 20% of French travelers admitted to making no attempt to do the same.

76% of those poorly-dressed Brits plan to take a summer vacation this year.

A TripAdvisor spokesperson said, ”Despite airline strikes, an uncertain economy and an erupting volcano, it’s reassuring to see British travellers recognising the importance of a summer holiday again.” It’s just a shame that they’re doing so in such horrible outfits.

Hikers on new trail in Germany may see more “nature” than they want

Apparently, nudity is big in Germany. The German Nudist Association organizes outings for naturalists to nude beaches and campgrounds and now, there’s even a special path for naked hikers. Yeah, I said naked hikers.

The 11-mile long trail will run from Dankerode to the Wippertal dam and officially opens in May. The trail will be marked with signs warning hikers that nudists are in the area. “If you don’t want to see people with nothing on then you should refrain from moving on!” one says. While Germans anxious to hike au naturel have been trying out the unfinished trail, not everyone is excited to encounter naked hikers. The nearby town of Appenzell has banned nude hikers – anyone caught hiking in the buff, an act town officials have called “shameless behavior”, faces fines of up to £120.

I can kind of see the appeal of nude beaches – I’m no fan of tan lines – but nude hiking makes no sense to me. Poison oak and mosquito bites in uncomfortable places and sore, um, jiggly bits? No thanks. But I’m glad that those with a passion for hiking in their birthday suits now have a place to go. And I’ll echo the sentiments of the Deputy Director at the German National Tourist Office: “To the locals I would say: hike and let hike. To the nude hikers, I would say: Mind the brambles and high thistles.” Ouch!

[via Daily Mail]

Brits continue to self-congratulate on cleanliness

Brits are the best-behaved hotel guests, according to a survey by TripAdvisor. More than 3,000 participated in the study, and the results are certain to reinforce stereotypes. Forty-three percent of hotel guests from the UK make their own beds every morning … which is nothing compared to the 79 percent who put their clothes neatly in the closets.

But, tidiness comes with a price. Travelers from the land of the stiff upper lip are also the most accident-prone. They tend to break things and block up the toilet – the latter distinction shared with the Germans.

Shockingly, the French are the quietest (fewest noise complaints), and those from Spain are most likely to dip into the mini-bar without paying. Italians are both the worst tippers and most likely to leave underwear in the room.

Here’s the best part: 10 percent of all survey participants admitted to replacing minibar items with cheaper, store-bought stuff.

Germans still traveling to U.S.

You’ll find plenty of German tourists at just about any major destination in the world, and this is unlikely to change. As of October/November 2008, German tour operators are reporting a 4 percent to 9 percent increase in tour bookings.

Trips to the United States were up 5 percent for the first 11 months of 2008 compared to the same period in 2007. Seventy-nine percent of the tour operators surveyed believe that bookings to the United States will be up for the last quarter of last year. Major cities are on the agenda, so look out, New York! The Germans are coming!

At the time of the survey, German bookings to the United States were up 10 percent to 15 percent average for the fourth quarter – and that’s over 2007’s 15 percent gains from the fourth quarter of 2006.

And, the trend is expected to continue this year. Sixty-four percent of German tour operators project a 4 percent to 9 percent increase in the first quarter of 2009 (relative to the first quarter of 2009.