It was a waiter at the Pousada Palácio de Estói who told us about the colourful history of the former stately home, which is grandiosely called a ‘palace’. The house, designed by the architect Domingos da Silva Meira in the early-nineteenth century, was originally built for Francisco do Carvalhal e Vasconcelos. It had fallen into a state of neglect after the last member of the Carvalhal e Vasconcelos family died, but a wealthy man called José Francisco da Silva acquired the house at the beginning of the twentieth century and restored it. Da Silva was made the Viscount of Estói and this is where versions of the truth become a little blurry. In some versions of the story he was given the title for restoring the house, but in our waiter’s version, a version that seems more likely, da Silva used the house as a place for his powerful friends to come and stay. He would organise parties where these men could meet women away from the watchful eyes of their wives and it was for these favours that he was made a viscount. The small summer houses and gazebos in the gardens, which would have made it easy for illicit rendezvous, support this story.
Whatever the truth is, there is nothing else quite like the Palácio de Estói in the Algarve region. The exterior of the house is pink with a bell tower and dome. Inside, the house is a fine example of rococo-style décor, from the ornate stucco ceilings, carved wood-panelled walls, frescos on the walls and ceilings depicting nymphs and cherubs, extravagant chandeliers, gilt-framed mirrors and gilded furniture. There is even a small chapel.
The ornamentation continues in the gardens, to the point that there is so much going on it is hard to know where to look and attempting to describe it in words is almost impossible, but I shall try!
From the bar and restaurant area of the house a flight of stairs leads to a terrace with a formal garden from which there are lovely views of the Serra do Caldeirão mountains and the city of Faro. On the other side of a wall is the hotel swimming pool and along the top of the wall are busts of Portuguese heroes, including Vasco da Gama, Luís de Camões and Almeida Garrett. In the centre of the garden is a fountain with a cherub sitting on a dolphin. In two corners of the garden are two small charming summer houses with stained-glass windows, frescos and azulejo panels depicting pastoral scenes and to one side is a path flanked with pillars.
An ornate wrought-iron gate leads to a staircase which divides into two and descends to a lower terrace where, at the bottom of each staircase, you are welcomed by a statue of a nymph reclining against a coloured panel of tiles decorated with images of exotic birds and plants. Dominating this terrace is a fountain with four more nymphs and a cherub watched over by some gargoyles and to the side of the terrace is what appears to be a bandstand.
Another staircase, opulently decorated with azulejo panels depicting more nymphs and cherubs, leads to ground level where there is the pièce de résistance, a wonderful grotto with intricate wrought-iron gates at the three entrances, a mosaic floor and walls, statues of Venus and Diana and at the centre is a delightful replica of Antonio Canova’s early-nineteenth-century sculpture ‘The Three Graces’.
From here a path lined with trees and lavender plants leads into the rest of the garden, which includes a lovely grove of orange trees. At the far ends of the garden are two gazebos, far enough from the house to be perfect for secret assignations away from prying eyes! The house is surrounded by a relatively low wall but there is an incongruous ornate gate at the south-western end of the garden, through which in the past carriages would have entered. Nowadays the gate appears to be firmly locked and the only entrance is through the hotel reception.
Despite the work that da Silva put into restoring the house, subsequent owners did not maintain it and by the time Faro Municipal Council acquired it in 1987 it had fallen into a state of disrepair. Eventually, it was restored under the direction of the architect Gonçalo Byrne and financed by the Portuguese tourist office and it became a pousada (a state-owned hotel in a building of historical interest managed by the Pestana hotel chain) in 2009. The original part of the house and the gardens are open to non-guests, but we decided to go for the full experience and treated ourselves to a night in the hotel. The accommodation, swimming pool and spa are in a completely new section built to the side of the original house, but it has been designed in such a way that it doesn’t impinge on the original building either from the inside or the outside. The three former reception rooms (Salão Verde, Salão Nobre and Salão Estói) are still used for socializing as there are sofas and armchairs in all of these rooms and the bar opposite serves drinks, snacks and even afternoon tea here. Dinner and breakfast are served in the restaurant next to the original kitchen, which still has the original cooker and cooking utensils on display.
The modern part of the hotel is a complete contrast to the original building, but somehow it works. Our room was large with two double beds pushed together. It was on the lower ground floor, which, due to the way the hotel has been built into the hill, meant that we had to go down two flights of stairs from the reception, but it also meant we had a little terrace with a table and two chairs facing onto a patch of grass, although our room was a bit too low to have a view. As it was late December I didn’t use the outdoor swimming pool, but I did make use of the spa, which had a very small pool with a Jacuzzi at one end, a sauna, a Turkish bath, a tropical shower with water jets and, in a room opposite, a few gym machines. There was a wonderful view of the sun setting over Faro from here and, best of all, I had the entire spa to myself.
After it got dark we went for a walk around the grounds and got a different perspective of the ornamentation in the floodlights. The artificial light allowed us to focus on the main sculptures without all the extraneous details coming into view. It wasn’t better, just different.
We then decided to eat in the hotel restaurant, O Visconde, as it advertised gourmet regional cuisine. The food was good and each dish was a decent size, but it wasn’t cheap. We started with the regional couvert of bread, olives and olive oil, which also came with an unexpected amuse bouche. We then opted for a regional tasting snack starter which comprised sardines and roasted red peppers on toast, asparagus wrapped in smoked ham with poached quail egg, figs stuffed with cheese mousse, chilli and olives, and fried squid with garlic and coriander. They were all delicious and gave us an opportunity to try local dishes we wouldn’t normally order. For the main course Neil ordered the cataplana porco which was pork loin with sweet potato, chouriço sausage and clams cooked in a cataplana (a traditional metal cooking utensil) and I opted for tagliatelle served with grilled vegetables (not a regional speciality and in retrospect I wish I had ordered the vegetarian cataplana, which, if not authentic, would have been an interesting variation on a traditional theme). For dessert, as it was a few days after Christmas, the hotel was offering a dessert buffet of traditional Portuguese Christmas desserts at no extra charge and although we were stuffed we couldn’t resist trying treats such as bolo rei, filhós, sonhos, aletria and rabanadas, among many others. A bottle of one of the cheaper wines on the wine list (at €19) washed it all down nicely.
We retired to the Salão Nobre for a nightcap and found ourselves alone in this sumptuous room, as all the other guests had retired to their rooms. It was almost possible to image what it must have been like to have been a guest in this house in its heyday and nearly 100 years after his death José Francisco da Silva’s presence is still very much felt. It may have been the wine or the fact that there was no one else about, but for a moment I thought I saw him poking his head round the door to make sure we were having a good time. We were!
Pousada Palácio de Estói, Rua de São José, Estói https://www.pousadas.pt/en/hotel/pousada-estoi
One night in a double room, including breakfast and use of the spa: €114 (late December 2017)
Dinner (couvert, two starters, two main courses and a bottle of wine): €86
Bus from Faro to Estói: €3.30 per person one way (buses aren’t very frequent)
Taxi from Faro to the Palácio de Estói: €16.75 one way