In contrast to the rococo extravagance of the Palácio de Estói, which has been immaculately restored and leaves little to the imagination, the Roman ruins of Milreu, the other main attraction on the outskirts of the village of Estói, requires quite a bit of imagination to picture how the site would have looked from the 1st to the 10th century AD when a villa stood there. Nowadays it is mainly only ground-level bricks that remain, but if you look closely there are few vestiges of the former villa. The site isn’t very big and it is amazing to think that early archaeologists mistook it for remains of the city of Ossonoba (which was on the site of what is now Faro, 8 km away). It wasn’t until the 1940s that two archaeologists identified Milreu as a large villa. The layout of the villa is still very evident and there was plenty of information around the site to help me understand what each area would have been used for.
The villa was built around a large peristyle (a type of cloister) in which the water tank in the centre and two columns that surrounded the courtyard are still standing, but I was particularly drawn to the largely intact remains of the mosaic floor depicting marine creatures, which are thought to date from the 4th century AD. During this period a decorative style which had started in Rome made its way across the Roman Empire and wealthy Romans employed artists to create works in this style in marble, mosaic, ceramic and painted stucco. The mosaics that still exist at Milreu give us some idea of what the decorative style of the villa would have been like.
Also, still standing is the bathing complex, which comprised an apodyterium (changing room) of stone benches along a wall with a large number of niches underneath, presumably for people to store their clothes. A bathing pool had also withstood the test of time, with more wonderful fish mosaics lining it, also from the 4th century AD.
Due to its position near the Serra do Caldeirão mountains and the River Seco there was a good supply of clean water that they channelled from the mountain springs into the villa and dirty water from the kitchen, baths and latrines was removed via drains that ran downhill to the river. The villa was totally self-sufficient: they grew their own vegetables, figs, olives and grapes and made their own wine. Part of the garden can be seen along the southern side of the house, which would have been where the entrance was. They even had their own forge where they made farming tools, nails and locks. A few remains can be seen in the museum.
Another important building that is still partially standing is the temple to the south of the villa which was dedicated to a water god. Information in the small museum gave more details about the temple and even had a scale model showing what it would have looked like when it was built in the 4th century AD, with columns around the outside and an apse at the southern end. Nowadays only the crumbling apse is still visible. The temple was believed to have been built by the owner of the villa in the 4th century AD as a private place to practice pagan worship, as by then Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire. In later centuries it became a church and, during the Moorish rule, a mosque.
The villa was abandoned in the 10th century, possibly after it was destroyed in an earthquake. However, a farmhouse was built on the north-east corner of the site in the 15th century using some of the villa’s foundations and it was adapted into its present form of a large white building with a cylindrical watchtower on each corner in the 19th century.
To either side of this farmhouse are what would have been the working areas of the Roman villa, including an area of wine presses to one side and the atrium area, which included the kitchen, to the other. Interestingly the kitchen is nowhere near the triclinium (formal dining room), although the atrium opened onto the peristyle, the other end of which gave access to the triclinium.
As well as lots of insightful information about the structure of the villa and the life of the people who lived in it, the museum also contains copies of some of the busts that were discovered in the grounds of the villa, including Agrippina (the mother of Emperor Nero) and Emperor Hadrian, explaining that portrait sculptures were often a way of showing support for an emperor and were put on display in areas where they would be seen by visitors, such as the atrium, peristyle, gardens and bathing complex. The originals, dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries respectively, are now on display in the Museu Municipal de Faro.
Without the information that I had gathered in Milreu’s museum before stepping out into the site I would have probably walked around the site, seen piles of bricks and a few mosaics and instantly have forgotten it, but instead I left feeling as fascinated by the Roman period of Algarve history as I am by the more recent history.
Roman Ruins of Milreu, Rua de Faro, Estói
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10.30am-1pm and 2pm-6.30pm (May-Sept); 9.30am-1pm and 2pm-5pm (Oct-Apr). Closed 1 January, Easter Sunday, 1 May, 7 September and 25 December.
Bus from Faro to Estói: €3.30 per person one way (buses aren’t very frequent). It is a 10-minute walk from the centre of Estói.
Taxi from Faro to Milreu: €15 one way