Angela Merkel is a creature of habit, even in her summer break. And in the last decade she has effectively had the same holiday: staying in the same hotel and hiking the same paths in the Dolomites of South Tyrol, often wearing exactly the same outdoor clothes as the previous year.
Until her husband was seen on holidays without her in recent days, and the normally restrained German media went into overdrive. Where, they asked, was Angela Merkel?
Their concern tells a tale about how off-duty politicians here usually are left alone – in particular Dr Merkel, perhaps the most private public figure of the modern age.
Partly it is a reflection of her own personality. She was 35 when the Berlin Wall fell and the lessons she learned from her parents growing up in the informer-riddled East Germany – tell no one your business – were deeply ingrained by then. But even she lets a little personal detail slip out sometimes. After an annus horribilis in Berlin, even she confessed at her summer press conference last month: “I won’t deny I like when I have a few days’ holidays and can sleep a little longer.”
The question of recent days, though, was: where is she sleeping? Usually journalists can set their watches by her schedule. First summer holiday stop is Bayreuth, in the Franconia region, where the Wagner-loving leader enjoys an opera marathon at the annual festival.
Then she and her husband, retired physicist Joachim Sauer, head further south to Italy’s northernmost region.
But not, it seems, this year. When paparazzi pictures popped up of Dr Sauer hiking – not with his wife at his side – but a son from his first marriage, alarm bells began ringing in editorial offices around the country. What was she up to, the Bild tabloid wanted to know, presenting its readers with more questions than answers in a story headlined: "The Mystery of Merkel's South-Tyrol Holiday." Adding to the air of mystery was her spokesperson who declined to give any details as to the chancellor's whereabouts – fanning even higher the flames of speculation.
“The chancellor is relaxing for a few days,” the spokesperson said. “She is always reachable, fully able to work and at all times informed about current developments.”
The chancellor was most likely unaware of the interest in her plans, or the swarm intelligence at work to piece together her whereabouts. Instead of the mountains there was a birthday dinner with friends in a favourite Berlin schnitzel restaurant, then she attended a five-hour production of Wagner's Parsifal at Munich's state opera.
The solution to the Merkel Mystery was, in the end, fascinatingly mundane. Few politicians here ever seem to get up to high jinx, even though robust privacy laws give them considerable discretion in protecting their private sphere. Media lawyer Christian Schertz told Munich's Merkur daily: "If a chancellor doesn't want that anyone knows where she is in a private capacity, then it's nobody's business."