Already mentioned by Plinio the Old in the 1st century AD to which he referred as “Corticata”, the Cortegada island is today the crowning jewell of Vilagarcía de Arousa environmental turism. It belongs to the Galician Atlantic Island National Park alongside Cíes, Sálvora and Ons. The achipaelago formed by Cortegada is the smallest of the park with hardly 190 hectares, of which just 43.5 are land. It consists of four parts, Corticata, Malveiras Islands, Briñas and the O Con islet.
Despite being the smallest of the family, it is however, the most accesible at any time of the year. Contrary to what happens to the other islands which protect the entrance of their corresponding rias – Cíes, the ria of Vigo; Ons, Pontevedra and Salvora, Arousa -, Cortegada is at the beginning of the ría de Arousa by the side of the mouth of the river Ulla and just 200 metres from the port of Carril.
A short distance that can be crossed on foot if the tide is low going along the “camiño do carro” – the carriage way- called like that in reference to the marks of the carts which came from Padrón to pick up the seaweeds in order to transform them into fertilizer (also the reason why the town and port of Carril where called like that).
Its geographic features and historic circumstances make it a unique island both environmentally and ethnographically.
Archaeological remains and some documents evidence the Romananization of this territory, as well as the presence of Normands who went up the river in search of the treasures of what they called Jacobsland. Today it is empty after its unsuccessful donation to the king Alfonso XIII in 1907 in order to build a summer palace. However, the island was inhabited from medieval times, and belonged to San Martín Pinario monastery in Santiago.
There is a 17th century chapel dedicated to the Virgen de los Milagros and also a little hospital that provided shelter and help to settlers and pilgrims that, as Vikings did, travelled to Compostela although driven by different purposes. Today, the chapel – transformed into church by the Archbishop Fernando de Andrade, a Vilagarcian who was born in the pazo of Vistalegre and who venerated the Virgin of Cortegada- is in ruins and in process of being rehabilitated. The other buildings are exactly in the same situation: the settlers’ houses, the community horreos or granaries, the stables and the water well.
Although some projects plan to recover or consolidate some of the buildings, these remains tell us a great deal of information about the fishermen’s settlements of those days. Today, and according to someone’s definition, Cortegada is a floating forest however, about a century ago the greater part of its territory was cultivated, even with vineyards. There were also animals which alongside the exploitation of sea resources defined its economy, to the point of becoming a self-sufficient microcosm.
Everything changed in 1907 when not only Vilagarcía and Carril but also the whole Galicia started a nonsensical competition in order to substitute San Sebastián as the king’s summer holiday spot. The first – unsuccessful – cession took place in 1907. But haste makes waste – there were some plots that were not ready for the cession, a king’s request to accept the island – and it was not until 1910 when all the procedures were completed. At that time, Alfonso XIII had already started La Magdalena, in Santander, so it obtained a 2-in-1, i.e. a palace in the Cantabrian coast and an especial island in the Atlantic.
That social and economical frustation resulted however, in the environmental power that Cortegada offers today. One hundred years of isolation were necessary to get the biggest laurel forest in sourthern Europe together with some other huge trees like pines, oaks, eucalyptus, platanaceaes and also some willow. And around this forest there are up to 800 different species of fungus, some of them endemic, which make the island a reference amongst mycological experts and enthusiasts.
Nature and history, myths and legends make the visit to Cortegada island something you cannot miss. Under the watchful eye of the stone-eating tree.