The whimsical-sounding Pfaueninsel, Peacock Island, isn’t some magical place straight out of the pages of Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Homer’s Odyssey. It’s not even from the fevered imaginings of Jerome K. Jerome’s literary yarn, Three Men in a Boat. Pfaueninsel is the very real creation of the pleasure-loving King of Prussia, Frederick William II – if a pleasure-loving Prussian isn’t an oxymoron. Set amidst lovely forests, Pfaueninsel is an easy day trip from Berlin.
Despite inflicting an unbending Protestantism on his subjects, Frederick William II was an indolent individual whose religious views seemed to apply only to others. He was twice married, divorcing his first wife and having seven children with his second wife. He had a mistress, Wilhelmine Enke, with whom he had another five children, and simultaneous morganatic marriages with two other women. To anyone who isn’t King of Prussia, this is known as bigamy.
It was his desire to please his mistress Wilhelmine Enke, who Frederick William made a countess in 1796, that led to the creation of Pfaueninsel. To the fairytale twin-towered white palace overlooking the River Havel, Frederick William added a menagerie. This included crocodiles, kangaroos, wolves, monkeys and peacocks, as well as some lions. Most ended up in Berlin Zoo, but some peacocks remained at liberty, their descendants freely roaming around to this day.
Given how many children Frederick William and Wilhelmine had, the island’s original name, Rabbit Island, seems just as fitting, if less ‘royal’. The ferry ride to reach the island is perhaps the shortest in Germany. It takes less than 60 seconds to cross the narrow stretch of water. A return trip costs €4, making it perhaps the most expensive ferry ride in Germany.
I arrived after a fantastic walk from Glienicker Bridge along the forested banks of the Havel. The route follows along the line of the Berlin Wall, which at this point separated the outer limits of the Allied-controlled parts of Berlin from Communist East Germany. If it wasn’t for a few information boards, it would be almost impossible to imagine Cold War tensions in this tranquil place. Unlike all the other Prussian palaces in Potsdam, Pfaueninsel was in West Berlin.
On the island, I headed first to the castle (closed for renovation) which offers great views over the water, and then criss-crossed my way along paths towards the Meierei auf der Pfaueninsel, the dairy, on the furthest point of the island from the castle. I had yet to bump into any peacocks, but found myself passing cages where exotic birds are kept. The island is also home to several species of endangered chicken.
There are a few other buildings on the island, as well as some statues and fountains, but the main reason for coming here is for the peace and quiet the island affords. One reason to get there early. When I crossed to the island I was in the company of a family but, even in February, when I crossed back to the mainland two hours later there were about forty people waiting for the ferry (that’s a lot of €4 tickets). I imagine the island gets pretty crowded in summer.
There’s one bus per hour from the ferry to the S Bahn station at Wannsee, I could see it leaving just as I got off the ferry. I was tempted to put my feet up in the Wirtshaus zur Pfaueninsel restaurant and wait for the next bus, in the end I walked back to Wannsee along peaceful trails through the forest. It was beautiful.