Ash cloud forces relaxed Merkel on European odyssey

ROME Sat Apr 17, 2010 12:10pm EDT

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ROME (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel set off by road on the next stage of an increasingly complicated journey home in good spirits after a volcanic ash cloud disrupted her return from the United States.

She has already spent more than 36 hours trying to get back to Berlin from San Francisco and on the latest leg, Merkel is heading north from Rome to Bolzano, in northeast Italy, in an armored limousine.

An entourage of some 60 officials and reporters are following close behind in a bus.

It is unclear what Merkel will do from Bolzano, said frenzied officials, who have been improvising each stage of the chancellor's odyssey. Bolzano is on the main highway between Italy, Austria and Germany.

Merkel's plane was diverted to Portugal on Friday, enabling her to spend a night in Lisbon due to the cloud of ash from Iceland that has brought hundreds of flights across Europe to a halt. She flew as far as Rome on Saturday but could get no further by air.

Despite the disruption, Merkel looked relaxed on her arrival in Rome and not a grumble was to be heard.

Indeed, something of a holiday atmosphere appears to have taken hold, with government officials saying the journey resembled a school adventure trip.

Known in Germany as the "climate chancellor" thanks to her international efforts to stop global warming, Merkel told reporters she would "take things as they come."

Her priorities were to gradually get as close to Berlin as possible, to avoid any danger and to keep the group of people she was traveling with together, said officials.

There was no appetite to take any risks, especially after last week's plane crash in Russia which killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and nearly 100 other mostly senior political and military officials in heavy fog.

It was unclear how Merkel spent her Friday night in Lisbon while many of her group dined at a restaurant with Embassy officials.

She has, after all, been spared a day of campaigning in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which holds a crucial election next month which her center-right coalition stands to lose.

The diversions have also offered the chancellor an unexpected opportunity to catch up with colleagues. Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates greeted her at Lisbon airport and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, himself due in the German city of Hanover on Monday, telephoned her from Milan.

It is unclear whether the Chancellor will get to Krakow for Kaczynski's burial on Sunday.

(Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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