Is how José Saramago described Milreu in his ‘Journey to Portugal‘, he also found them on his grand tour in 1979 ‘dirty and neglected’. Fortunately these days they are no longer neglected, in fact if you are interested in archaeology and/or history Milreu is a treasure of a find. I have no idea whether they are the most complete Roman ruins in Portugal, but they are certainly extensive and an important part of Portuguese history. There was once a luxurious villa rustica here; which means as well as the house there were workers’ quarters, farming area, agricultural buildings, mausoleums, a temple and a baths. A few columns of the peristylum (courtyard garden) are still here, but most what is left is at ground level or below!
Like José you may find the site confusing on your first visit, as whilst unlike José you will have the benefit of staff and a few display boards, it is difficult to get your bearings. The one available map unfortunately isn’t displayed as you walk up the path from the visitor centre, and so it is easy to miss the villa entrance. We highly recommend purchasing the guide book if you visit, or at least spending some time looking at the small displays in the visitors centre. On our first visit back in 2014 my eye was caught by the several well-preserved floor and wall mosaics. I couldn’t resist them on our second visit either. The fish mosaics in particular are of a very high standard, and apparently some of the designs are unique to Milreu. I would love to know how the ones in the plunge pool would look like under water. I wonder if it felt like you were swimming amongst the fish in the sea?!
What captures everyone’s eye who drives past is the large circular construction. It is the inner part of the water sanctuary built during a period of opulence, and later converted to a Christian temple. Its presence along with the busts that have been found at Milreu all confirm this was an extremely wealthy establishment.
The Milreu site has been occupied for nearly 2000 years, first by the Romans then the Moors after their invasion in the 8th century. There are Islamic inscriptions on some of the columns which are still standing. After the Moors left following the Christian reconquest in the 13th century, the site remained occupied right up until the 20th century. The last occupants living in the fortified 15th century farmhouse at the top of the site.
For more photographs of Milreu do visit my original post, or even better visit Milreu yourself! The visitors centre can be found on the outskirts of the village of Estoi, just a few miles north of Faro. Current opening hours are May to September 10:30 to 13:00 and 14:00 to 18:30, and over the winter months 9:30 to 13:00 and 14:00 to 17:00. The last entry is 30 minutes before closing but you will want more time than this. As with most Portuguese museums is closed Mondays.