Portugal # 10: Lethe

Portugal # 10: Lethe (this one’s for Chris)                                         23 November 2011

I understand: you used to know what “Lethe” meant, but you forgot.

Sometimes forgetting important stuff like that can be a problem. Like this morning: we had breakfast coffee in a bar-cafeteria in Ponte de Lima, and I walked away with my jacket but without my shoulder bag that held important stuff like Kleenex and my URI hat and my camera. Left it on the chair. And we got almost all the way to Guimarães before I remembered and we had to retrace about 40 kilometers. The barista –well, the lady who ran the coffee machine—had stashed it away in a corner. We thanked her profusely, and then Linda led me to the local florist to buy her a pretty potted plant.

On the other hand, remembering the significance of a word like “Lethe” sometimes can be a problem. Like in 135 BCE when the Roman expeditionary general Decius Junius Brutus brought his troops into the idyllic valley of the River Lima, a peaceful green dale in the midst of towering rocky hills, and the soldiers decided that the placidly flowing stream must be the River Lethe, and adamantly refused to cross it. They knew in their bones that Lethe was the river of forgetfulness, and that crossing it would erase all their memories, just as if their cerebral hard disks were to be passed over a strong magnet. They sat down on the riverbank and refused to budge.

Decius Junius harangued them, but they just dug their butts into the sand. Finally, in exasperation, Decius Junius rode his horse through the shallow water to the far bank, turned around, and called to each of his men—by name—to come across and join him. History didn’t record the expletives he undoubtedly draped around each of their names as he hollered at them. Whatever. His recalling their particulars proved for them that it wasn’t the Lethe, but just an ordinary Portuguese stream and, shamefaced, they joined their commander on the far side.

Which, I guess, is why the town fathers of Ponte de Lima set up a line of Roman soldier mannequins on the south bank of the river, and a statue of a mounted Decius Junius Brutus across from them on the north shore.


Even without these silly tin soldiers, Ponte de Lima makes a delightful stopover place. Decius Junius’s colonizing successors put up a beautiful bridge that has carried traffic across the stream for about 2000 years now, although six arches of the two dozen or so spans have had to be rebuilt in more modern times: 5 in the 12th century, and 1 in the mid 19th, after Napoleon’s troops blew it up. At the town end is a 21st century sign noting that the bridge is also a link on the Portuguese Santiago pilgrimage road, and that, in fact, a hostal, an Albergue de peregrinos, lies just across the bridge from the town square.


Ponte de Lima has a medieval quarter (well, half, actually: the place isn’t very big) with a couple of surviving towers from the wall that once ringed it. There are a few restaurants, a half dozen diminutive plazas, some cafés, a couple of lovely parks, and at least one conscientious honest small town barista.


After we delivered the flowers Linda and I became the latest in a 2000-year chain of hungry folks who have sat down to a picnic lunch under a shady tree by the Roman bridge over the …. what was the name of that river?

David & Linda