Since the Palaeolithic Period, people and animals have moved across them. Human presence in the Cíes Islands dates back to around 3500 BC, although the first settlement was established in the Bronze Age (between 500 and 100 BC), as confirmed by the one found in As Hortas—a castro on the slopes of Monte Faro.
The Cíes Islands: from Roman times to the present day
The Romans passed through this archipelago, leaving many traces of this period behind such as goldwork, amphorae, ceramics and different tools. These are now on display at the Provincial Museum of Pontevedra. Evidence of their passage can also be found in the writings of Strabo and Pliny. They called them “the islands of the gods”, and the legend goes that Julius Caesar was right here during his pursuit of the Irminones from Portugal, who had to sail to the Cíes Islands to escape from the Roman Empire’s troops.
In the 5th century, it was the Suebi who launched vicious attacks against the islands, but no traces of their brutality remain. During the Middle Ages, the Cíes Islands were inhabited by different religious communities. The Benedectines settled here in the 11th century, eventually leaving the islands only to come back in the late 13th century. The 14th century saw the arrival of the Franciscans. The convents of San Estevo (on Faro Island) and San Martiño are a legacy from this period, as well as a fish salting factory, upon whose ruins the restaurant was built. These monks, which maintained a feudal regime with the islanders, were constantly fleeing the Norman attacks on the Ría de Vigo. The Barbary and Ottoman pirates, and above all, the English navy led by Sir Francis Drake drove the islands’ inhabitants out, with many starting to leave the archipelago by the mid-18th century.
In the early 19th century, the repopulation of the Cíes Islands began: first, through a fortification strategy (building an artillery storehouse, a coast guard barracks and a prison), and then with the arrival of livestock farmers and fishermen from the neighbouring region of O Morrazo. In addition, the lighthouse on Illa do Medio (“Middle” Island) was built in the mid-19th century. It was in the 1960s, when it became permanently depopulated. Nevertheless, a decade later, they were used by young people from the Ría de Vigo as a place for rest and relaxation… as well as freedom; they sought sunshine, nature and the sea, but also wished to get away from the prying eyes of their social circle and family (it was still possible to camp anywhere then).
Recently, overcrowding and intensive industrial activity on the Ría de Vigo (or underwater pipelines discharging water) led to rapid environmental degradation. The Cíes Islands have been witnesses to the sinking of several fishing vessels, such as the Ave do Mar (in 1956), the Marbel (1978) or the François Vieljeux one year later. In the current century, the islands suffered the effects of the oil spill from the oil tanker Prestige, stranded off the Costa da Morte.
In order to prevent such things from happening again to the extent possible, a number of protective measures have been adopted. Thus, in 1980, the Cíes Islands were declared a Nature Reserve. In 1984, they became the property of the Xunta de Galicia. In 1988, they were declared a Special Protection Area for Birds (SPA), and on 1 July 2002, they became part of the Atlantic Islands of Galicia Marine-Terrestrial National Park. Other protective measures were also taken, such as their declaration as a Special Protection Area for Natural Values (in 2004) and an OSPAR Marine Protected Area (in 2008).
At present, due to the restrictions imposed by the National Park, only the campsite, the restaurant and the Park’s own services can be found in the islands. What’s more, access is restricted and only a maximum of 2,200 people/day can visit the Cíes Islands (by private boat or by riding a ferry).
Remains dating back to the Paleolithic (hand axe and scraper for shellfishing) and Neolithic (millstone and a decorative piece) periods have been found in the Cíes Islands. At the castro of As Hortas—dating from the Bronze Age—, there are four quadrangular dwellings where amphorae, ceramics and goldwork have been found, as proof of its subsequent Romanisation. The hermitage on San Martiño Island and the convent of Santo Estevo (on Faro Island)—which currently houses the Interpretation Centre and where several anthropomorphic tombs were found—date back to the Middle Ages. Lastly, the waters around the Cíes Islands are full of treasures, such as anchors from the Prehistoric Age, galleons from the Modern Age, Nazi submarines from WWII or ships that have sunk over the past decades.
In terms of architectural heritage, in the Cíes Islands, you’ll find the houses of the ancient settlers, remains of salting plants and facilities that were built to fortify the coast. It also has 4 lighthouses that mark the entrance to the Ría de Vigo: the Cíes Lighthouse (1852) and the Peito, Príncipe and Bicos lighthouses, which are all from the 20th century. The archipelago also has a chapel dedicated to the Virgen del Carmen (1963) and a small altar on the island of San Martiño (1930).