Just a few kilometres’ drive outside bustling and busy Berlin, a peaceful little island of ancient trees, charming old buildings, water buffalo and splendid, friendly peacocks awaits!
I wasn’t expecting an island when I headed to Berlin for the weekend but my good friend Julian, who lives there, surprised me with a visit to the Pfaueninsel – less than an hour’s drive away. Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) is an island in the Wannsee area of the River Havel situated between Berlin and Potsdam and close to one of the old border crossings between the former East and West Germany. The island forms part of the Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990. The Pfaueninsel is also a nature reserve and a special protection area for wild birds.
We drove off of the main road through tall and beautiful forest trees to a woodland car park and a path through the trees to the tiny ferry to the Pfaueninsel. The distance across is less than 200 ms and the ferryboat ‘Luise’ makes the journey every 15 minutes or so. There is a long and fairly strict list of rules about what is and isn’t acceptable on the island – no smoking, no camping, no demonstrations! The island is billed as an historical landscaped garden with examples of old-style farm buildings. It has beautiful trees, lovely forest walks with great lake/river views, plenty of fascinating buildings and lots of very friendly peacocks. There are even water buffalo (allegedly)!
Originally known as ‘Rabbit Island’ due to an earlier rabbit breeding programme, the island has been home to a glass foundry and more recently in its history was home to Frederick William IV’s collection of over 900 exotic animals which were moved in 1942 to what is now Berlin Zoo. The island is a great place to just relax and wander. A fascinating variety of buildings have been designed to reveal themselves from behind the trees as you follow the well-tended paths around the island – from the enormous wooden boathouse, to the more elaborate Kavalierhaus, Luisentempel and the bizarre Prussian castle overlooking the water on the south side of the island.
The ear-splitting screech of peacocks can be heard from wherever you are but we didn’t see any until we got close to their aviary and breeding centre in the middle of the island. The first peacock we saw was following a couple of girls who were feeding it morsels of apple. It was surprisingly tame! We were in for a shock. There were loads of them, they were roaming freely and they were VERY friendly! (The island is apparently home to between 35 and 100 peacocks.) At the aviary, we sat down on a bench and immediately a peacock came over to us (we called him Pauli), fanned his feathers and slowly turned around in slow and deliberate circles in front of us proudly showing off his splendour. He was there for ages! The noise of the screeching peacocks was deafening and, in the end, we had to leave as it was so noisy!
Inside the pens were some beautiful white peacocks. Apparently they are not albino, as their eyes are not red, but are white because of a genetic defect. They were very popular with the Indian Maharajahs and are being bred here. They are not found in the wild and are therefore kept inside the aviary.
The island was originally covered in oak forests but was carefully designed to become an aesthetically pleasing farm island where King Frederick William III and his Queen Luise were able to enjoy the rural tranquility they loved. The transformation began in 1795 with the building of the dairy and the farm buildings. In the early 1800s some of the forest was cleared to create 6 fields of arable land, set amongst the trees, to grown crops and vegetables in a carefully planned rotation programme. Today only one of the original 6 fields remains and that has been divided up into a few small cultivated areas that are ploughed and planted with wheat and corn, potatoes and alfafa.
The north west part of the island is sectioned off and is the area where the water buffalo live – sadly we didn’t see any. There is a collection of charming old red brick farm buildings and stables, still in use, and a dairy built to look like a little palace. There’s even a thatched long barn. It’s all really beautiful and picturesque and slightly odd as we didn’t see any people (or buffalo). There were a couple of ponies there though.
We were just saying that the only thing missing was a bar when we stumbled upon one! In the middle of the island is a large grassy meadow with a wooden chalet-style café/bar and an old-fashioned wagon, with very cheerful and helpful staff, dispensing delicious German favourites – coffee and mouth-watering cakes, beer and various sausages including wild boar. We opted for the beer and sausage option. Delicious! Tables and chairs decorated with vases of wild flowers were arranged on the edge of the meadow and several people had brought picnic blankets and were sitting on the grass eating cake and watching the spectacle of the peacocks running around, chasing each other and picking up scraps under the tables. One cheeky one nearly had an elderly man’s cake directly from his plate! The peacocks are really tame, come very close to people and are completely happy to show off their feathers to all and sundry. Free entertainment!
On the other side of the island to the farm and positioned to benefit from the wonderful views across the river is the Prussian Castle. Built for the Prussian King Frederick William II and his mistress as a ‘lustschloss’ (castle of pleasure!), the castle has been built in an ironic style on the outside – it looks like a film set – but with elaborate wood panelling on the inside. A beautiful, flower-filled, circular ornamental ‘English’ garden surrounded by purple wisteria in full bloom was hidden in the trees near the castle. The island is full of surprises!
Pfaueninsel is delightful, lovingly looked after and magical. The architecture is fascinatingly diverse and the way the buildings are set amongst the trees is lovely. We had a great time wandering aimlessly through the trees, searching unsuccessfully for water buffalo, watching the crazy peacocks and drinking beer in the meadow. Cool, relaxing and beautiful – the perfect escape from the hot city – and all for €4 a ticket. Loved it!
NEXT ISLAND: My next island will closer to home – St. Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly