Cinque Terre and now Rome!

Oct 08

Cinque Terre and now Rome!

We found a place to stay in Monterosso, the northernmost of the 5 villages in Cinque Terre, and it was…. interesting. The location was fantastic. We had an awesome ocean view and a balcony that was perfect for eating gelato and watching the sunset. The bed, though, was a little short and the bathroom always smelled like sewer. A weird mix of being awesome and horrible.

On our only full day in Cinque Terre, we took a quick boat ride over to the next village, Vernazza, to start a hike. Our hotel neighbors did the hike the day before and it took them 5 hours so we figured it’d be a good workout. Trying to find the start of the hike was a little difficult. After going the wrong way a few times, we finally found the right starting point at the same time as a group of American guys. About 15 minutes in, Amanda’s asthma was starting to bother her. We immediately hiked back down and took the boat back to Monterosso to get her inhaler. After making a quick gelato stop, and I considering taking a nap, we started the hike in reverse at what would have been the end of the trail.

And a good workout it was; man, were we sweating. About 45 minutes in you could tell the views were going to be spectacular. There were red and white lines that look like a long equals sign painted everywhere (hah, almost everywhere) you might go the wrong direction on the hike. A few confusing forks with minimal signage and three liters of water later we reached the top of our hike, the Santuario N. S. di Soviore, at about 550 meters above sea level (according to the altimeter on my watch, calibrated the night before). The views of Monterosso and the sea were stunning. We relaxed and drank water for about 20 minutes.

We bought some more water, exchanged picture-taking with a group of Australians, and followed them down the trail to Vernazza.

It was a long, long way down to Vernazza and hard on our knees. We passed by many olive trees and grape vines. Some farms had motorized collection contraptions that looked like an unsafe unexciting theme park ride through some plants. If you’d ask me, I’d much rather ride a machine than carry boxes of olives/grapes up and down that hillside.

I had heard (or made up, we’ll never know) that the last boat leaves at about 7pmish. It was about 5:45pm when we got close enough to Vernazza to see that the boat was coming. We really didn’t want to wait another hour to take the boat so we ran the rest of the way. And by ran, I mean we RAN. I wasn’t quite sure we’d make it. As we were running through the village streets, I was sure that we’d missed it. Turns out we made it just in time! As we quickly purchased our tickets from the ticket lady she told us it was the last boat. We congratulated ourselves with some high fives as we wiped the sweat off of our faces and hopped on the boat back to Monterosso. In total, it took 3 hours 20 minutes including a 20 minute break at the top.

For dinner, we ate at Ristorante Miky, a swanky place that we had tried to eat at the night before but they didn’t open until 7pm and we were too hungry to wait. We got there at 7:05 to find a line about 10 people long. We had gotten dressed up (OK, OK, fine, I put on my dress up shirt – a collared short sleeve – and Amanda a nice black shirt. We’re traveling, give us a break) and were determined to eat a Miky. A gal in line told us this was Rick Steve’s favorite restaurant in Cinque Terre which probably was a clue to it’s popularity. Amanda had some triple vegetable soufflé dish with *amazing* cheese and I had some tasty gnocchetti in pesto. Tiramisu and chocolate souffle for dessert. Yummmmm.

We slept real good that night. Oh wait, just kidding. Our sleep has been anything but predictable this trip. Amanda had trouble sleeping with a sore throat 🙁 The next morning, reluctantly, we got up early and, reluctantly, had the same nasty hotel breakfast. A short walk to the train station and we were off to La Spezia, the first decently sized city outside of Cinque Terre.

We’ve been using a SIM card from TIM, an Italian mobile phone company, and were relying on our 3G data too much. We hit our data limits while traveling to Cinque Terre and subsequently used up all of our cell phone minutes. For most of our time in Cinque Terre, we were stuck in a hotel with no internet, with mind-boggling slow cell phone internet, and no upcoming hotel reservations for Rome. Uh oh.

Luckily, my data limit reset this morning (Monday) and I was able to use the internet at a decent speed. We waited at the La Spezia train station for 2 hours for a high speed train to Rome with no train changes. Even more luckily, there was wifi at the train station (for a fee) with which we were able to find and book a hotel for Rome. We’ve done too much traveling to a place without having a definite place to stay until the last minute. It’s getting quite tiring. More than a couple times we’ve talked about heading home before we initially wanted to. We’ll see how Rome goes.

But for now, our hotel in Rome is awesome. Considering we had like 6 choices for hotels with wifi and a gym that had 7 consecutive days available the one we picked has turned out to be great so far. Upon checkin, the front desk manager was funny and sarcastic and gave us a room on the top floor. We were A) surprised to have a separate sitting room with couch & king chair, B) surprised to have a walk in closet, and C) surprised to have a 40 foot balcony overlooking Rome!

We don’t have any set plans for Rome yet, but we do know there are about 5 things we know we *have* to see before we go. First thing on our schedule tomorrow is laundry. Yay! Clean clothes!

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Caio Venice! Hi Verona!

Oct 06

Caio Venice! Hi Verona!

Yesterday we met Giancarlo, the mask maker, back at his shop to follow him to the post office to mail our mask. We also brought other souvenirs with us to mail home when we met Giancarlo, and he was so generous to find us boxes in his shop and use his packaging supplies to help us pack our other “to mail” items. During the process, he filled us in on some disturbing facts about Venice and the mafia. He told us that local italians never pays for the tickets to take the water buses around Venice because they are 7 euro for one hour of travel, an astronomical price when you consider that to use the subway in Paris, France, it’s 1 euro per ticket destination. He explained that this huge hike in prices is due to the mafia controlling the transportation in Venice. He also said the gondolas are mandated by the government to be 80 euro for 40 minutes, but because the gondoliers are in the mafai’s pocket, they charge tourists anywhere from 80 euro to 140 euro for sometimes less than half an hour! We couldn’t believe it. After Giancarlo took us to the post office and helped us mail all of our purchases, we treated him to some cappuccinos and said goodbye.

We walked back to our hotel, packed up, and took the water bus back to the train station, passing under the Rialto Bridge on our way. We didn’t bother actually walking on the bridge because the Ponte Vecchio is way cooler. Our train ride was 2 hours to Verona and pretty relaxing.

When we reached Verona, we caught a bus from the train station to a different train station closer to where our room was that we were renting on Our host picked us up from the bus stop and dropped us off at the small flat. It was very nice and clean if a bit small. We hung out in the flat, then walked 10 minutes from the flat into the city center to find some dinner. Feeling nice and full after, we followed the crowds to a famous square in Verona called the Piazza dei Signori. We wandered among the shops still open and passed by the statue of Dante. Next, we found an alley way that looked like a very sad attempt at Bubblegum Alley in San Luis Obispo. The alley way was chock full of graffiti and led us to the famous Romeo and Juliet balcony!

The balcony was very pretty, connected to the House of Juliet and set in a small courtyard with a bronze statue of Juliet. Apparently, if you touch Juliet’s right breast, you will receive a new lover. There was quite a queue of young men waiting for their turn to touch the statue’s boob. Go figure. According to the English panel below the balcony, the building once belonged to a very promenant and wealthy Italian family called Cappello (This family is believed to be Shakespeare’s Capulet). There is also apparently a “tomb” of Juliet below the building.

We left the poor statue and headed back over the river to our flat, purchasing some groceries along the way. When we arrived back, we noticed a very strong rotten egg smell in the apartment that reminded me very strongly of propane or natural gas. Ryder couldn’t smell it very well because his sniffer is broken, but we contacted the owner who said he would look at it in the morning. We couldn’t leave the windows open because we were directly above a major (and loud) street. With the windows closed, we both started feeling sick, dizzy, and experienced headaches. Eek! Ryder tried turning off the gas valves, but the feelings and smell persisted. Finally we called airbnb and told them the situtation, and called the owner to get him to come over to fix it. Well he finally showed up at around 11pm and explained that some electrical things were done two days ago and must have stopped the heater from turning on properly. He apparently “fixed” it, but we still didn’t feel comfortable at all sleeping somewhere with gas problems. We told him we’d rather leave and he showed us the door.

Now its 11pm and we walk back toward the bus stop only to discover that the busses are no longer running this late. The owner of the flat meets us farther down the street and tells us his wife wants us to stay at their house in their extra room. She was mad at him for just kicking us out onto the street so late. We graciously declined the offer, deciding to try to catch a night train to Rome instead. We finally managed to hail a cab and were taken back to the train station. On the way, I caught quite a few glimpses of street walkers about their business. Talk about the city of love. Once at the station, we tried to reserve tickets for a night train, but couldn’t manage to get any sleeper beds within the same compartment. So, we instead booked a night at a hotel near the train station, caught another taxi, and finally got into bed at 1am. Phew, what an experience.

Today, we are going to take the train (5 hours) to a small hotel located within the Cinque Terre national park. Unfortunately, there is no internet available at this hotel so we will not be posting updates until we reach a new destination on Monday (probably Rome), so expect lots of photos and stories on Monday (unless we can find an internet cafe). Until then, caio!

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Glass blowing & Gondolas

Oct 04

Glass blowing & Gondolas

Today we woke up at around 9:30am and moseyed on down to the breakfast room for some cereal, eggs, and cappuccinos! The hotel has a tiny terrace off the breakfast seating area were we settled, sipping our cappuccinos and watching boats glide by on the canal below. Ryder wanted to venture off the main Venice island today to see glass blowing on the neighboring island, Murano. He went down to ask the concierge where we should go to catch a boat ride, and he told Ryder for us to be in the lobby at 11am.

Ok, 11am and we are met by an Italian guy who tells us its a five minute walk to the boat. He asks us were we are from then assumes we are following him for the next 4.5 minutes. We reach our destination; a dock in a canal running next to a hospital where the ambulance boats park (Yep, that’s right! Need an ambulance in Venice? It floats!). He says the boat will be here soon and then another Italian guy walks up who is introduced to us by Italian guy 1 as his “associate.” Hmm ok. A few minutes later, a boat pulls up and Italian guy 1 helps us in then says “Ciao!” and walks off with Italian guy 2. Now we are alone in a strange boat with a mute driver (we’ll call him Italian guy 3 just to be consistent) who backs up, heads out of the canal, and into open water outside of the Venice island. I have a momentary flash of, “Oh great, we are so getting sold into slavery,” then I realize its Venice and it helped that the boat seemed to be headed directly towards the neighboring island. I know mom, I know, don’t get into boats with strangers. I really wasn’t that worried, I have Ryder to protect me 🙂

The boat ride out was pretty awesome. It looks as though the waterways are marked off by large pylons spaced every 10 feet or so, creating a sort of “boat freeway” between the islands. We passed a few private boats, taxis, shuttles in the distance, and an entire island turned into a cemetery. Finally, we pulled up along side the island of Murano. We were dropped off by Italian guy 3 at private dock a bit down the outside of the island.

Another Italian guy (You guessed it, Italian guy 4) met us at the dock and ushered us into a glass blowing studio! Three men (who we found out later were brothers) were working together to create a glass chandelier; what this particular shop is known for. The glass blower (gaffer) used a long metal rod (about 4 feet) to pick up a portion of the liquid glass (called a gather), then would use gravity, rolling, and some blowing (parison) into the metal rod to get the desired shape (marvering). At one point, he used metal tongs to pinch the bottom of the hot glass, then twisted the rod to get a spiral effect. It was really neat to watch.

According to Boise State University, the art of glass blowing was discovered along the Phoenician coast in 20 B.C. This new technique changed the use of glass from jewelry and ornaments to necessities and is still done in basically the same way today. Constantinople provided the center of glass working after the decline of Rome, while Venice rose as the glass working center after the Dark Ages. Venetian glass was also known as cristallo because it resembled rock crystal. Today, the good stuff is dubbed Murano glass.

After an allocated number of minutes, a smartly dressed salesman lead us out of the studio and into a show room where we discovered 6 rooms full of plates, cups, bowls, vases, glasses, pieces of art, and anything else you can think of all made from glass! We walked around a bit then headed out into the heart of the island. After venturing into a few shops and purchasing some gifts, we ran into two gentlemen we had met on the train from Florence to Venice, Doug and Frazier from Victoria, Canada. It was so great to run into them again! We decided to have lunch together and had the best time! After a couple of hours we parted ways and headed back to the main island. We took the local transportation this time 🙂

Back in Venice, and making our way back to our hotel, we stumbled across a shop selling Venetian masks. This is actually quite common in Venice, lots and LOTS of stores sells masks, but what was unique about this particular shop was we could see a woman in the window actually making one of the masks! Well, my artistic curiosity was piqued so we walked into the shop. The owner greeted us at the door, showing us the two different types of masks him and his wife (the woman working on the mask) make. They had a few ceramic masks, the rest were made by hand out of paper-màché from molds they had made themselves. The masks were then hand painted and decorated. Their shop was full of beautiful designs and unique masks. We purchased one, had some fun working with the owner to figure out packaging, then said goodbye, planning to meet up with him to go to the post office tomorrow to mail our mask and some other things.

Back on the street, and again making our way back to our hotel, we were talked into a gondola ride by a very persistent gondola oarsman dude guy… what do we call him? Anyway, we got into the gondola and set off! It was quite a neat experience to see Venice from the canals. We drifted under bridges and around other gondolas, waving at fellow tourists who floated by. Our gondola oarsman dude guy was very talkative and in English with a smattering of Italian (maybe it was the other way around) pointed out the water marks along the canal where the water line had risen high enough to flood the first floor! After a bit of confusion we realized he was telling us that in November and December it is very common for the water level to rise higher than the first floor of most of the buildings in Venice during high tide, then wash back out during low tide. At almost every building he would say, “Lady, excuse, lady, lady look, see…” He also explained a bit about gondolas, showing us how the boat tips a bit to the right making it slice through the water and easier for him to maneuver. All in all, it was a very interesting and entertaining ride through the watery “streets” of Venice 🙂

After the gondola, we FINALLY made it back to the hotel to drop off our purchases, then we headed back out into the city for dinner. We ate at a small corner restaurant, grabbed some gelato, and walked back to the Piazza San Marco to enjoy the live classical music wafting across the square played by three small orchestras set at intervals along the piazza. Tomorrow we leave magical Venice for Verona!

P.S. According to Wikipedia (cringe), a gondola dude is called a gondolier 🙂

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See ya Florence, Hello Venice!

Oct 03

See ya Florence, Hello Venice!

Ryder: So, Amanda hasn’t been feeling all that well and our super helpful and friendly AirBnb host Paolo offered to let us stay longer while she’s sick (Needless to say, we haven’t been doing much of anything since our last post). After some debating, we took him up on his offer Monday morning, the day we had planned to travel to Venice. I was able to massage our reservations into moving back a day and now here we are, on Tuesday, in Venice!

The train ride was a quick one, only 2 hours, but when we arrived we found out that the water bus taxi system we needed to take to reach our hotel were starting a strike today. So far that’s two strikes that have affected our travelling during this trip 😉 The vaperettos, aka the water bus, were only taking people to the Rialto stop, and we needed to go a few more stops down the river. We amazingly did not get lost (thanks to Google Maps on my non-upgraded iPhone). We arrived at our hotel and then went out to explore, grab some dinner, and soak up Venice!

Amanda: Today we woke up in time for complimentary breakfast then went for a walk around Venice. We went over a few bridges and down some narrow streets, enjoying the ambiance and bustling vibe. One of the big differences we’ve noticed between here and Florence (apart from all the water, duh) is the ridiculous number of tourists in Venice. We hardly ever hear Italian walking down the streets! Most of the shops we passed held high-end leather goods, glass wear, lace, and lots and LOTS of Venetian masks for Carnevale Festivals. This is definitely a city geared toward tourists.

We went back to our hotel for a bit, then headed to the famous Basilica di San Marco in the Piazza San Marco just around the corner from our hotel! The beginnings of this structure were built to house the supposed remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, brought (or stolen depending on who you ask) from Alexandria. The original church was burned, but rebuilt to the present basilica, and consecrated in 1094.  This basilica stands as one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture as, according to the churches website, “To build St. Mark’s Church, Venice brought the spiritual and material heritage of Byzantium to the West.” Feel free to insert “stolen” for “brought” were you see fit.

We walked around the interior of the church, marveling at the vast space and large intricate mosaics lining the ceilings, accompanied by brilliantly intricate slabs and tiles of marble. We paid a bit extra to see the view from the top and tour the basilica’s museum. In the museum we found the “Horses of Saint Mark.” They are four bronze horses dating back to Classical Antiquity, cast in the lost wax casting method. Some accounts claim these horses once adorned the Arch of Trajan and were long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. They were taken to Venice in the Fourth Crusade, stolen by Napoleon in 1797, but returned to Venice in 1815. The horses now on the facade of the cathedral are bronze replicas.

After our fill of the basilica, we stopped at a restaurant near our hotel for some dinner and are now in for the night.

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Florence Day 7, then Day 8 – Tuscany!

Sep 24

Florence Day 7, then Day 8 – Tuscany!

So yesterday was Sunday and it was a really boring day. We walked around the streets of Florence for awhile looking for a nice cafe to sit at and write in our journals while drinking cappuccinos. The place we wanted to go was unfortunately closed (big surprise, it being Sunday and all). We wandered around our area then down to the Ponte Vecchio and over to the Duomo. The cafes near the tourist spots were crowded and expensive. We stopped at one spot for sandwiches and water then continued searching. By 4pm we gave up and headed back to the apartment to write. Well, at least we got some walking in…

Today ROCKED! Ryder surprised me with plans to go horseback riding in Tuscany through vineyards and olive groves as an early one year anniversary present!! We got up early and walked down to one of the piazza’s to get picked up for the tour. Our guide, Jacapo, was super friendly and talkative. He drove 8 of us in a van out into the country. We switched vans and continued on to the horse stables. The ride was a bit crazy and the road really curvy and rutty.

We burst out of the shaded, walled city scape into breathtaking Tuscany with rolling hills and valleys full of vineyards, orchards, and dotted with ancient stone villas. We stopped at the stables, looking out over acres and acres of vineyards, orchards, and forest. We met the other people in our tour – there was a couple from London who had come over just for the weekend, another couple from D.C. who had been traveling through Italy for 2 weeks, a gal from Florida who had been traveling for a month, and another gal from New York who was also visiting for 2 weeks! Everyone was super friendly and we all hit it off splendidly.

We were fitted with helmets and then introduced to our horses. Ryder got on the first horse named Naomi who lead the pack of tourists, next were the couple from London, then came me on Danny. The gal who set me up on my horse said, “If he stops, give him a hard kick.” Well, lucky me, I got the MOST lazy horse of the group. At every single hill, Mr. Danny decided to come to a dead stop and eat some grass or stare lazily ahead. All of my kicking and talking to him hardly made a dent! He would only move when the tour guide at the back of the line shouted, “Danny! Vai!” and the occasional, “Danny! Mamma mia, impossibile!” Silly horse. Well, he was very friendly and easy otherwise. We had such a grand time climbing up and down the hills along side the grape vines.

We finished the horse section of the tour at the Villa le Corti where we were served a three course Italian meal complete with two glasses of wine to taste. We sat with Lisa from New York, Daniela from Florida, and our tour guide Jacapo. The food was as excellent as the company and we all shared a bottle of our favorite wine. After the meal, we went on a tour of the wine production facility.

This winery is famous for its Chianti Classico, a type of Tuscan wine that can only be considered true Chianti if it is grown in this specific area of Tuscany; just like Champagne in France. The Chianti Classico is a blend of 85% Sauvignon and 15% Merlot grown from 49 hectares of vineyards. It is fermented and aged in the seventeenth century cellars located in the large rooms built beneath the villa garden. The house blend of the Chianti Classico is aged in large concrete vats, much to our surprise. The “good stuff” is aged in French and American oak.

The olive oil mill is also located below the gardens. We were able to get a tour of these facilities as well. The Chianti Classico DOP Extra Virgin olive oil is made from hand-picked olives grown from 13,000 trees. The olives are pressed within twelve hours of harvest and the olive oil is certified organic. They had only two jars left over from the 2011 harvest and are geared up to press the 2012 harvest beginning next month.

After the tour we were able to purchase a bottle of wine and then were taken back to Florence. The tour was really fantastic and lots of fun! Later in the evening, Lisa and Daniela came by for some pasta and salad dinner! We stayed up talking until midnight, drinking wine, and having such a fun time! We hope to have more adventures with them in the next few days.

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Florence Day 5 & 6

Sep 22

Florence Day 5 & 6

Yesterday we spent some time hanging around the flat. At around 2pm we decided to walk over to the Accademia delle Belle Arte where the famous David sculpture by Michelangelo resides. We hoped to purchase reserved tickets at the box office for the museum instead of going through a third party. When we arrived there were two queue lines, one for entrance with a ticket at a certain time and one without a ticket. We got into the without-a-ticket line as it looked rather short and thought, “We’ll we’re here, might as well try and check it out today.” A lady came down the line and informed us that for only € 20.00 each, she could help us by-pass the line we were in that could take 2 hours and bump us up to the with-a-ticket line. We declined, decided we didn’t want to wait 2 hours, and walked up to the ticket booth instead.

Much to our surprise, we were able to purchase tickets at € 15.00 each for the next entrance time at 2:45pm, yay! We stood in line for about 15 minutes and met a couple next to us who were from Melbourne, Australia. They had quit their jobs and were traveling just like us! They had flown west across Asia, stopping in Dubai, then on to Europe. It was really interesting to meet another couple doing the same thing as us! They plan to spend time in France over winter as the gal was able to land a job at one of the ski resorts. We wished them luck and headed into the museum.

Most of the paintings and sculptures in the Accademia delle Belle Arti are from the Renaissance period. Among them sits the original David by Michelangelo, a monumental sculpture, that has been housed in this museum since 1873. David was created between 1501 and 1504 and stands at 17 ft. tall. The statue represents the Biblical hero David after he’s defeated the Goliath. It truly is a masterpiece of high Renaissance work. We were both struck by the shear size of the sculpture and the delicate attention to detail. We weren’t too impressed with much else in the gallery, apart from a handful of unfinished sculptures also by Michelangelo, but that could be because we have seen SO MANY PAINTINGS on this trip.

We exited the gallery and headed back out into the streets towards our next destination, Santa Croce. Our main reason for visiting Santa Croce was to see the robes of Saint Francis of Assissi but we learned (thanks to Google) on the way there that the robes themselves were carbon dated at 100 years too early to be worn by St. Francis but the robe tie matched the correct time period. We were delighted to find out the basilica houses the crypts of Machiavelli, Galileo, and Michelangelo, among other famous Italian Glories. The church was about to close by the time we made our rounds so we headed home for some yummy Italian pasta.

This is Ryder now, for today’s post.

Well, there has been construction next door going on all week starting at 7am. Last night we rejoiced that in the morning, since it would be Saturday, we would be able to sleep in without being woken up to debris crashing through a make-shift three story garbage shaft at a consistent interval of 1 minute and 45 seconds.

Little did we know that Italians don’t stop construction just because it’s the weekend.

I severely hope they take Sunday off, just like all of the rest of Italy does, so we can get some good sleep in the morning. It didn’t help that “Italians” (ok, fine, fine, I’ll stop generalizing. “Italians in Florence that happen to walk by our street at 2am”) kept us up by yelling and partying on our street late into the night.

But we’re loving Florence, I promise.

We slept in, as much as we could, today before heading off to the Mercato Centrale to see what that was all about and get supplies for dinner and food tomorrow.

Four Euros and twenty cents. That’s all it took to buy:

  • One crown of broccoli
  • One head of butter lettuce
  • Two bunches of spinach
  • Three huge golden delicious apples
  • Three nectarines
  • A large yellow, and partly green, bell pepper
  • Two tomatoes
Definitely found where we’ll be buying all of our groceries for the rest of our time in Florence.

In the market, we found a place that sold freshly made pasta. We were stoked on finding that place and picked up way too much tortellini for two people to eat in one night for 4.65 euro.
Again, the market was just about to close as we finished our shopping (or was it we finished our shopping just as the market was about to close?). Getting to places just in time seems to be happening to us more often these days as our sleeping schedule has shifted a little thanks to Mr. Noisy Construction Company two doors down. We ate pizza slices we purchased from the market, I grabbed a cappuccino and Amanda had some water, and we headed back home to rest and do some work. We made a huge salad with our market spoils and cooked half of the tasty tortellini for dinner. Sleepytime!
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