The fairy tale castle of Peacock Island

By | Category: Travel destinations

 

the castle of Peacock Island © Hans Bach/SPSG

the castle of Peacock Island © Hans Bach/SPSG

Pfaueninsel, or Peacock Island is situated on the river Havel to the south of Berlin and is reached by taking the S-Bahn to Wannsee, a short ride on the 108 bus and finally a brief ferry crossing. As it is a nature conservation area and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is not surprising that it is a popular destination but we were fortunate to find ourselves almost alone on the island.

The white castle which is in fact more of a folly, is clearly visible as the ferry approaches and we were greeted immediately by the island’s best known inhabitants – the peacocks. The island is tiny, only one and a half kilometres long and half a kilometre wide but it is brimful of charm and history – and we both fell in love with it.

Talking of love, the island is best remembered as being the trysting place for the Prussian King Frederick William II and his mistress, Wilhelmine Enke. He met her when he was a young crown prince and she was still a child, some say 11 or 12 years old. He went through an arranged marriage but soon after his wedding he sent Wilhelmine to Paris to finish her education and on her return he took her into the Palace at Potsdam as his mistress. She bore him five children only one of which survived and remained his closest confidant all his life despite his second marriage and his many sexual liaisons which resulting in some 16 illegitimate children. He eventually elevated her to the status of nobility, creating her Countess of Lichtenau.

Peacocks still roam the island © Hans Bach/SPSG

Peacocks still roam the island © Hans Bach/SPSG

Pfaueninsel was their shared project – a sort of experiment in pastoral living à la Marie Antionette. Work began on the castle in 1794, a Potsdam carpenter ( the folly is made of oak wood painted to look like stone) was employed to build it in the form of a ‘ruin’ in the fashionable romantic style with two circular towers linked by a wrought iron bridge. It was Wilhelmine, however, by then a very cultured and artistic woman, who was responsible for much of the interior decoration. In fact Frederick and Wilhelmine did not enjoy the castle for very long. He died before it was finished and they probably only visited it a handful of times.

The island however, had a life both before and after Frederick and Wilhelmine. Prior to their arrival it was known as Rabbit Island because a rabbit breeding station had been set up there by Elector Frederick William I of Brandenburg. It was he too who gave permission for a glass foundry to be set up which produced a ruby red glass. The foundry was destroyed by fire in 1689 and the island then remained empty for almost a hundred years.

After Frederick William II’s death in 1797 the island passed to his son Frederick William III who lost no time in exiling Wilh

the dining room © SPSG

the dining room © SPSG

her to return to Berlin)

It was Frederick William III who, with his beloved wife Queen Luisa and their seven children in fact made most use of the island, spending at least a month there every summer. They had a special house, The Cavaliers’ House, built for the children and their nannies and they themselves lived in the castle with 2 servants and a lady in waiting.

The king also established both a model farm and a menagerie on the island which he filled with alligators, buffalos, kangaroos, monkeys, chameleons, wolves, eagles, lions, lamas, bears, beavers…and peacocks. He loved his animals and would feed them himself. He also allowed visitors from Berlin to come and see them three days a week. After Queen Luise’s sudden death, the King continued to visit the island with the children. The animals were eventually transferred to Berlin where they formed the nucleus of the zoo.

On our visit, once again we were fortunate in that we were the only people to buy an entry ticket (€3) to the castle (the €3 ferry charge includes only admittance to the island) and so we benefitted from a private tour. It is truly a sleeping beauty of a building – we’ve come across few places which exude such a potent sense of history (Marsh’s Library in Dublin is another) but here so much of the furnishing and decoration is original that as we wandered around we could easily imagine that the royal family had just slipped out of the room.

the island as seen from the ferry © Hans Bach/SPSG

the island as seen from the ferry © Hans Bach/SPSG

In cupboards we were shown Queen Luise’s brimmed ‘Shute’ sunhats (named from the awning of a ship) and on the tables, the board games the children played for sweets. We learned that the family had fireplaces in the rooms, not for heat but to form a focal point and because even in summer they loved the crackling sound of wood burning.

The King’s bed is tiny, as is his simple bedroom but pretty. The blue wallpaper decorated with flowers and birds is the very one he would have looked at – although as it was pointed out, the colours would have been even more vibrant. Some of the walls, like those in the Third Conversation Room, are covered with Indian chintz cotton which has faded and some of the mirrors are too old to reflect – but they will be left like this, ‘until they fall off the walls,’ we were told. There are 5 lavatories – well, commodes with pots – but no wardrobes as it was the family’s habit was to bring their clothes in trunks and take them away at the end of the visit because of the damp.

the Tahitian cabinet © SPSG

the Tahitian cabinet © SPSG

One of the most unusual rooms is the Tahitian Cabinet, the walls of which are covered with grey linen painted to resemble a bamboo hut in an imaginary South Seas landscape. The parquet throughout the castle is magnificent, polished by generations of slippers. In this room, with a circular expanding pattern of palm leaves it is made form nine woods. The ballroom contains an even greater variety of woods, some fifteen in all, which were used on the floor while the walls resemble red marble. The dining room ceiling, painted with a copy of Guido Reni’s Aurora and illuminated by a magnificent Bohemian chandelier is another delight.

There is much to see on the island apart from the folly. It is surrounded by an ‘English’ garden in which you can see a series of structures and ruins including the Cavaliers’ House which was used as the setting for several Edgar Wallace films in the 1960s. As a nature reserve it is still full of animal life – including in summer, four water buffaloes which help the gardeners to “mow” the wetland area.

Pfaueninsel is indeed a very special place.

 

For more information about Pfaueninsel, click here.

 

 

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