Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘Spain 2010’ Category

Barcelona Museums, 29-30.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 1, 2010

Our last two days in Barcelona were spent in museums, and despite its history of civic arson Barcelona turned out to be a treasure trove of interesting places. 

We went to the Rambla (a pedestrianised street)  first because everybody does, but I wasn’t very impressed. There are people who get a buzz out of being in places that are very popular and full of crowds but I’m not one of them.  (Especially not when a careless tourist cracked my foot – my good one! – with her beastly trolley case, one of those really solid hard metal ones – it turns out that it crushed a nerve, no wonder it’s still hurting *a lot* nearly a week later *sniffle*).   No, the best thing about the Rambla was that I found a big bookshop that had some English books, and there amongst the dross was a copy of Washington Irving’s A History of New York.  (Did I mention that there was a plaque in the Alhambra recording that he stayed there?)

The first museum we went to – and the one you mustn’t miss if you are interested in ancient history – is the City Museum, (Museo de Historia de la Ciudat).  It’s a bit hard to find this place on maps and in guide books because there are also two other museums, the History of Barcelona Museum, and also the History of Catalonia Museum.  Opening hours are surprisingly limited: it’s only open from 10.00 till 2.00, so make sure you have the location right before you plan your day: it’s the city museum, the one with the underground Roman ruins. Even when you find it in Plaza Rei, there are two and the one you want is not the one up the steps; it’s the one on the other side of the square at ground level.  (BTW the  official webpage is all in Catalan so don’t expect to make sense of that even if you speak Spanish.)

Once you’re finally inside it, there’s all the usual introductory stuff you’d expect to find – in Catalan, Spanish (which they call Castellano) and in French.  That’s right, not in English – though when it’s 1.30pm and they want the visitors out of there promptly so that they can knock off at 2.00pm, the announcement is in two languages: Catalan and English.  There is a video in three languages, but having to sit through the same video twice over in the wrong language was clearly too much for Americans visiting at the same time as us.  (And it was too much for me because I’d read 500 pages about Barcelona’s history in Robert Hughes’ book already.)

But once you take the lift and whizz down underground, it’s brilliant.  The Roman remains were discovered when some building was being done, and fortunately work was stopped and the archaeologists moved in.  What you can see, using a cleverly designed series of pathways, is the remains of streets, houses, a processing plant for making fish sauce and another for making wine.  It is the best thing I have seen since Pompeii.  But it’s a good thing I can read French, because most of the signage again is in three languages but doesn’t include English – and the audio guide is pitched at the level of an ignoramus who knows nothing about ancient Rome at all.   It doesn’t tell you anything about the small items on display.  Very, very annoying.

From there, we went to the Picasso Museum.  Considering we’re amateur art lovers we’ve seen a good bit of Picasso’s work – a visiting exhibition at home, at the galleries in London, Austria and Italy, at the Louvre and the Picasso Museum in Paris, and at the Prado. So I was not expecting to find anything especially interesting – but it was excellent. 

There is a lot of his early work, which Tim was pleased to see showed that Picasso could actually draw and paint!  There was some fine portraiture though we weren’t much impressed with his gloomy landscapes.  There were also quite a few pictures on what looked like wooden cigarette box lids, like the ones Australian Impressionists of the Heidelberg school used when they were too hard up to buy canvas.  I really like these: I like the idea of young artists being so resourceful and so keen to practise their art that they will use whatever comes to hand.

Anyway, we could see examples of Picasso’s blue and rose periods, and the gradual emergence of his modernism.  The museum actually has less of these because of course his later works are in all the major museums of the world (we in Melbourne have his Weeping Woman).  There are ceramics and sculptures too but I don’t find them quite so interesting. 

In the evening we had a most enjoyable evening meeting up for the first time f2f with my Good Reads friend Troy and his lovely wife Anna.  We went to a great new restaurant Cal Boter in 62 Carrer Tordera in Gracia which specialises in real Catalan food.  We shared sea urchins and local mushrooms in season and prawns for entrée, Tim had duck with a vermouth sauce and I had the local lubino (sea bass) which I have come to love since being here in Spain.

We spent our last morning at the Ceramics Museum complex conveniently close to our hotel, on the Diagonal.  The Ceramics museum is sensational – when I have time I will make a little video of the photos I was allowed to take – it begins with old pottery and goes right through to the present day.  But the best bits were the Catalan tiles, both dear little individual ones which were used to identify the premises of craftsmen in the days before people could read, and huge mosaics depicting Great Moments in History.  If you have to choose just two museums in Barcelona, then this and the City History museum would be my recommendation. 

As well as the pottery and tiles in the Ceramics Museum,  in the same building (an old palace) there’s also a fascinating Museum of Decorative Arts and a Museum of Textiles – which was more a history of dress, showing how and why the body is decorated.  Great stuff, don’t miss it. 

So this post ends our journey to Europe 2010 and this series of travels.  I’m writing it in our stopover hotel, the Singapore Crowne Plaza, and tomorrow I’ll be home. 

Thanks to everyone who took the trouble to comment on this blog…some nights I’ve been almost too tired to do it, but your encouragement made me make the effort and now I’m glad I have a nice record of this wonderful trip.  


Posted in Art Galleries, Barcelona 2010, Europe 2010, Museums, Spain 2010 | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Gorgeous Gaudi, Barcelona, 28.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 29, 2010

Well, today we slogged our way through two very long queues but we have seen and been inside both the Sagrada Familia and the Casa Mila.  These iconic works of architecture by Antoni Gaudi are huge tourist attractions, and now we know why!

We started with the the church because we were expecting the queue to be long, and we had an excellent guide – much better than an audio guide because she was there to answer questions, and was also up-to-date with the latest news…

Which is that the Pope is due to come and consecrate it next week!  (That’s why there’s a poster on the steeple, it’s advertising The Big Event).    Thank goodness we came this week and not next because the crowds will be unimaginable – this building was started in 1883 and so proclaiming it as a basilica is a major milestone and one that will bring Barcelona to a standstill, I expect. 

Thousands of words have been written about this work of art so I shan’t add much to them except to say that the exterior is fascinating.  Every statue is symbolic in some way because Gaudi was a devout Catholic –  all the carvings were done by sculptors under his direction when he was alive and in accordance with his ideas after his death.  The scenes on one side represent the Passion, and on the other the Nativity – yet to be done is the Gloria (the creation of the earth and the Garden of Eden) and it is hoped that this will be finished by the anniversary of Gaudi’s death in 2026. 

Inside, it is a magical experience to walk into what feels like an elegant, airy forest of trees.  The stained glass windows are beautiful and the curving lines of the choir high up in the air is so different to anything I have ever seen.    

The Casa Mila is the last work that Gaudi finished.  It’s a block of apartments, but these days tourists can enter in at the lobby, take a lift to the top floor and see scale models and a fully furnished Modernisme (Art Nouveau) apartment and then go out onto the famous terrace and clamber around the chimney pots.  We did too, of course, and had a lovely time even though all those flowing walls and curving lines distorted Tim’s infallible sense of direction just for a moment or two when we were inside!

As we say in Australia, when you’re on a good thing stick to it, so we’re going out tonight to dine at Casa Calvet – which is a restaurant in a building that Gaudi designed!

Posted in Barcelona 2010, Cathedrals & churches, Europe 2010, Historic buildings, Spain 2010 | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Alhambra, Granada, 26.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 27, 2010

My goodness, it was cold hanging around waiting to get into the Nasrid Palace this morning!  The way the system works to manage the huge crowds that want to see this place is to allocate times for each ticket.  So (assuming you have been smart enough to reserve a ticket from Australia two months beforehand) you collect it from the ticket machine and then you can get into the complex.  (Actually, you can also get into it from round the back, for free, but you can’t get into the significant bits of it so there’s not much point.)

The trouble is, you need to collect the ticket an hour beforehand.  Quite why this is so I do not know, but we are compliant, low maintenance tourists and so we did what we were supposed to do.   We then took the advice of our host at the hotel and walked to where the entrance is (because that takes 20 minutes across some mostly evil cobblestones).

There were then 40 minutes to kill and  once we’d had a quick look at the inside of Carlos V’s palace we were back outside in the queue and it was freezing. Everybody was cold, especially the poor young lady whose job it was to hold the tourist hordes at the entrance till their allocated time. She was rugged up much better than I was but she was stamping her feet and pocketing her hands and obviously wishing she had a warm woolly hat as well.  Fortunately there was a handy souvenir shop, and if there is one item you can count on finding in an Italian or Spanish souvenir shop, it’s a scarf so I whipped in and bought one while Tim stayed manfully out in the cold and pretended not to care. (Well, he would have looked pretty silly in a pink scarf with little bells on it, which was the least girly scarf I could buy.)

Eventually it was our time and we were in. Is it ok to say that it was a bit of a let-down? Not at first, because the first time you see a chamber full of Islamic whatnots on the ceiling and the columns and the doors and the floors it’s all a bit of a thrill. The trouble is, they’re into repetition. Lots of it.  It’s like Indonesian music which repeats itself over and over again.  Fascinating the first time but a tad wearisome for those not familiar with whatever it is that makes it so special.  And there are, of course, no pictures.  Representation of the human form is not allowed.  This is a bit limiting from an artistic point-of-view, in my amateur art-lover opinion….

But judging by the earnest commentary we heard about us (especially from one character got up to look like Oscar Wilde) scholars and aficionados of this kind of art are probably mightily impressed because it’s all terribly clever and M.C. Escher showed how very mathematical it is. But after three or four chambers of it, all looking more or less the same to the untrained eye, I was ready for a nice bit of high Gothic Christian razzmatazz, thank you very much! Fortunately the Crusaders turned up in due course and further up the hill they built a nice friary with the kind of architecture I like and that was much more interesting.

(There’s an intriguing contrast between one guide book and another as to why the Christians left this Moorish pile intact instead of ripping it down. One says it’s because the people of Granada were tolerant and reasonable and good at recycling buildings – and the other says it’s because the winners regarded the Alhambra as a prize of considerable prestige, and they wanted to flaunt it to show the Moors who was boss.)

Anyway, alas for the friars, they got turfed out in 1835 when Madrid took control of all church property and the place fell into disrepair until it was restored in 1929.  Somehow it miraculously survived the Spanish Civil War and a lot of other destructive acts against church property too.  Historically speaking, (according to Robert Hughes in his terrific book Barcelona) the clergy in Spain were in cahoots with the rich, powerful and important rather than with the poor and dispossessed so when the poor were feeling particularly oppressed they burned down a church or a convent.  Lots of them.)

But they left this one intact so you can still see the tombstone of Queen Isabella who in 1504 very piously asked on her deathbed to be buried in a simple shroud in the monastery – but would of course being a loyal wife defer to her husband King Ferdinand if he wanted to be buried somewhere else.

Well, she died first so she got her wish, and a great horde of flunkeys and courtiers and slaves got the unenviable task of carting her body to Granada in one of the worst rainstorms and floods on record. Ferdinand likewise wished to be united with her in death as well as in life (because after all there was the unity of the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon to be worried about) so he was entombed in the monastery as well until his grandson (whose name I forget) thought he knew better and removed it to the royal chapel.

There are lots of lovely gardens with water features at the Alhambra, and it takes a good five hours to meander about and admire them all. But for me, the best bit was the temporary exhibition of Matisse paintings which showed how he was influenced by his fleeting visit to the Alhambra. Back in his garret on the French Riviera he recreated a kind of oriental room as a backdrop for his nudes and there were quite a few of them (drawings and paintings) on display in the Museo.   There were also some exquisite embroidered shawls in this exhibition but of course the women who made them remain anonymous.

After five weeks on the road our stamina is not what it was and five hours on foot knocked the stuffing out of us. We had some lunch, and spent the rest of the day loafing about.

Tomorrow we’re off to Barcelona, so I’d better get to bed and finish reading the last chapter of Robert Hughes’s book!

Posted in Art Galleries, Cathedrals & churches, Europe 2010, Gardens, Granada 2010, Historic buildings, Museums, Spain 2010 | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Granada, 25.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 26, 2010

We got in by train at about 3.00pm, spent a lazy hour chatting about art with an American art professor at the local plaza, and then strolled off in the other direction – and found the bar with the best view of the Alhambra…

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And tomorrow we visit the inside!

Posted in Cathedrals & churches, Europe 2010, Granada 2010, Historic buildings, Spain 2010 | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Seville Cathedral, 24.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 25, 2010

This afternoon we went to Seville Cathedral.  It’s the largest Gothic cathedral in the world – and the third largest church as well.

You know those scenes of tourists gaping at something in awe, in places like the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum or Versailles?  That was Tim and me today in this cathedral, and there are no words to describe its majesty.  Here’s a video made with some of our photos…

PS We’re off to Granada tomorrow – and the Alhambra!

Posted in Cathedrals & churches, Europe 2010, Seville 2010, Spain 2010 | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Casa Robles, Seville 24.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 24, 2010

We arrived in Seville late last night, made later by an interminable delay in unloading the bags – only to find the city in the middle of a grand concert, which made accessing our hotel a bit of a problem for our taxi-driver.  At the first road block we were turned away and sent off in a different direction, but at the next road block he made an impassioned plea to the policeman(presumably about the strong probability of his tourists getting lost)   and we were let through.  

After we checked in we ventured outdoors to find some very late dinner. It was well past eleven o’clock but the streets were still full of people and the restaurants and bars were still open.  No problem said our charming host here at the Hotel Alminar, but it was, because everywhere we asked there were no tables and we ended up picking at a sorry ham and cheese roll at a sort of gelataria…

But by the time we’d reconciled ourselves to chucking most of it in the bin, the restaurant almost next to our hotel had begun to empty.  We ventured in for a restorative glass of wine, and found ourselves in a veritable temple of gastronomy, dedicated to the fruits of the sea.  We decided then and there that we would have lunch there the following day.

The after-party for the concert went on and on and on, and (despite the ear plugs) it must have been two o’clock before we finally drifted into sleep.  (The hotel doesn’t have double-glazing on the windows, a feature that has made most of the other city hotels we’ve stayed in impervious to street noise.)  So it was a later-than-usual start this morning, and the bus-tour was a bit of a disappointment because it was a bumpy old bus that made taking photos almost impossible.  (Travellers’ tip: check out the age of the bus before you buy your ticket. There are always two or three of these companies offering more-or-less the same tours so it pays to be choosy.)

Still, we saw some interesting features of the city that we would never have otherwise seen.  The buses can’t navigate the narrow streets of the old city so they go across the river to where Seville hosted an expo in 1992.   The temporary exhibitions are all gone of course, but these expos offer an opportunity for a city’s architects to build all kinds of innovative structures and Seville’s are no exception.

El Alamillo bridge

So there are all kinds of fabulous new buildings of architectural interest, and the bridge that crosses the river is an engineering marvel.  It’s called the El Alamillo Bridge, and it works by balancing the spar against the span using massive cables.  You can’t really see it properly in my photo so click the link instead to see good photos of it by day and by night.   Apparently the architect wanted to build another ‘matching’ one on Seville’s other river but ‘financial difficulties’ put paid to that.  What a pity, it would have been a grand sight….

But alas we did not see much of the old city except for its bullring (about which the audio guide waxed lyrical much to our disapproval) so we decided to have lunch at Casa Robles and then visit the cathedral and the fine arts museum.  We had a splendid lunch, and cannot understand why there are so many grudging reviews about this eatery on Trip Advisor.  Yes, it’s true they don’t speak much English but that’s not a criteria for judging a restaurant and to whinge about it says more about the whinger than it does about the restaurant.  Apart from anything else the menu is in four different languages and it provides very detailed explanations about what the dishes contain.

It’s also true that lobster dishes are expensive.  That is because the world price for lobster is set in Japan, and lobster (crayfish) is now very expensive wherever you go.   The days when we could buy a cray for $20 at a fish-and-chip shop and eat it on the beach are long gone.  It is a luxury food which commands a luxury price.  Whinging about that is like whinging about caviar being expensive or expecting French champagne to cost the same as Italian spumante. 

We consider it a very good sign when most of the diners are locals not tourists, and Casa Robles did not let us down in that respect at all.  We had traditional Seville seafood at a very reasonable price, and we could have fed four people with the very generous serves.  The seafood rice and broth was similar in appearance to the one we had at Cafe Nicola in Lisbon (rice, prawns, clams, mussels and fish in a tomato broth flavoured with saffron) but here they use a little more garlic, their local wines (as I’m sure the Portuguese did too) and they don’t add mint.  It was delicious and Chef Tim is going to experiment at home to reproduce it.  

Having left my Spanish phrase book at the hotel and lost a little of my bravura after four days in Lisbon where the speaking of Spanish is a grave insult, I muddled my way through conversation with the waiter – and he must have been pleased with the efforts of la tourista Australiana because after I had paid the bill and a generous tip, we were given delicious little sweet nibbles made with pistachio and some type of marzipan and sour cherry liqueurs.   So we had a lovely time at Casa Robles and we would recommend it to anyone!

Alas, it was as we were waiting for the bill that we discovered our foolish mistake.  The fine arts museum is only open till 2.00pm on Sundays…

Ah well, off to the cathedral now!

Posted in Europe 2010, Seville 2010, Spain 2010 | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

The Prado, Madrid, 19.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 21, 2010

 What on earth can I write here to tell you about the Prado? It is a sumptuous art gallery full of the most splendid collection of major artists. It took us the best part of five hours to see all three levels and still there are works that we didn’t have time to look at properly.

There is such an abundance of artworks by Velasquez,  it’s hard to take it all in.  My favourites were the portraits of the royal family – the famous Infanta (immortalised everywhere in the souvenir shops) and poor old Phillip IV with his sulky lip.  (He was said to be inbred.)  I also liked his sympathetic portraits of court dwarves and buffoons, investing them with dignity and respect that they may not have always had in real life.  Tim’s favourite was the Hurdy-Gurdy Player and I do wish I had time to do a search and find a link for these because I’m sure they’ll be online somewhere. 

As you’d expect, since Spain was a major military and imperialist power in its day, there are heaps of huge battle pictures.  My favourite was the surrender at Breda, where the victor showed his chivalrous nature by preventing his defeated enemy from kneeling in subjection.  There were quite a few of these surrender scenes, and almost all of them showed people in the background whose responses to victory ranged from arrogant pride to sympathy and respect for the vanquished. 

Portraits of this period are all about power.  Who’s got it,  and who hasn’t, and how the power arises.  Men mostly have it, though not always, as we could see in the portrait of Maria Louisa and her weak and useless husband.  But by and large the men have symbols of wealth and military prowess while the women hold flowers and wear clothes that reflect their husband’s wealth.  Sometimes the clothes the children wear are the same as those of their parents, reflecting dynastic ambitions.  There is always a back story to these portraits and I love finding about them.

People watching in the cafe is fun too, almost an art installation itself!  By lunchtime the gallery is full of tourists from all over the world and artlovers from all over Spain as well.  There are arty types (mostly young and a bit scruffy); reluctant spouses with aching feet; elegant ladies regretting their high heels; elderly folk tottering along  (determined to see it all before they die?) and tourists in sensible flats of all kinds.  They can be loquacious about the art works or sit in stunned delight; they can be solo travellers or well-behaved tour groups.  I was torn between watching them all or reading the guide book…

 Goya, El Greco, Hieronymous Bosch , Brueghel, Durer – oh there are so many and I’m too tired tonight to list them all.  My advice is, include this museum on your list of places to visit while your feet are young and strong enough to last the day.

We finished up our last night in Madrid at a nearby Galician restaurant. Tim had juicy white asparagus and I had grilled prawns for starters, with Galician hake and grilled sole in tartare sauce for main courses. The whisky cake I had for dessert was rather like a cheese cake with a cup of Johnny Walker poured over it – treacherous if there’s a breathalyzer nearby but of course we were on foot so we were able to risk some Spanish cognac as well!

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Palacio Real, Madrid, 18.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 21, 2010

We were tired out from visiting the Sofia and Thyssen museums – but we just had to visit the palace in Madrid. On the bus tour they had told us that it had some unimaginable number of rooms (2500+) and although it is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family, it is only used on state occasions and is open to the public most days.

We used our Madrid card for quick and easy entry.  The Madrid card, like the Dublin card, the Lisbon card and the Barcelona card, is a brilliant choice for tourists. You buy them online from Viator (or from the tourist office or airport if you haven’t planned ahead) and you flourish them in art galleries and museums to bypass queues a mile long. (Often there is a different door to use as at the Louvre, and what’s really good about bypassing the queue is that you can scamper up to the iconic paintings ahead of the mob and actually see them properly.) These cards offer free or heavily discounted entry to most attractions, discounts in restaurants and often free or discounted transport as well. They come in 24, 48 or 72 hour versions, and you can find out if one is available for the city you’re visiting from the Viator website.

Anyway, even if you haven’t got a card, the palace isn’t very expensive and it’s well worth the visit, especially the armoury which is just fantastic. There’s an armoury at the Wallace collection in London, but this completely outclasses it. There are dozens of life size knights in full armour on horses equally covered in beautifully decorated metal, but how they ever managed to actually fight anyone I cannot imagine – the weight must have been incredible.

You can’t take any photos of course, so I’ve sourced all the ones in this slide show from Wikipedia.

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After that, tired as we were, we visited the Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena as well!

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Toledo, 17.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 20, 2010

I’ve had trouble connecting to the web all day today so I spent some of my time making a little video from our trip to Toledo yesterday.

Here it is:

Posted in Europe 2010, Spain 2010, Toledo | Tagged: | 7 Comments »

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art 17.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 19, 2010

Here we are about to set off for the Prado and I haven’t even blogged my thoughts about our visit to the Thyssen Museum….

Street art - the one on the RHS is alive

If you’ve been following my blog you might feel that what I’m about to say is much the same as about the other galleries I have visited. The paintings are arranged chronologically, they demonstrate the development of western art (in this case from the Italian Primitives) and there is a fine collection of Dutch and Flemish masters, most of which we have never seen before not even in books. Modern art movements are represented too starting with the Impressionists (especially Pissarro).

But if you love looking at interesting paintings as an expression of human culture and ideas, then any exhaustive collection of European art is wonderful. At home, I like to visit the NGV time and again, to enjoy my favourite paintings and to look more closely at ones I don’t know very well. Here there is the frisson of seeing new ones, of recognising some that we have seen in books or other media (e.g. a small one of Holbein’s Henry famous painting of Henry VIII)  and also of occasionally recognising a famous person from history, such as a miniature of  Thomas Cromwell.  These little miniatures made me think of the days when an ambassador might be sent off to wangle some treaty or marriage and he had to be ‘made known’ to the court before his arrival. Not unlike the ways in which we arrange ways to recognise internet friends when we meet in real life for the first time!

I am not really a fan of the audio guide but the gallery has done a very good job of identifying its ’emblematic’ paintings, starting with the first of the gallery’s Italian paintings to go beyond its religious function and include an architectural image with a not-bad effort at perspective instead of just the usual holy trio. In the next gallery we saw the first one to differentiate people, leading to the eventual birth of portraiture, and that wonderful Bronzino of that duke, his sneer immortalised by the artist for all time. They have a lovely John Constable and a very early, very moody Van Gogh too.

Tim likes landscapes and still life best, while I like portraits and interiors in particular, but we spent a very satisfying three hours in this museum and would recommend it to anyone.

BTW You are not, of course, allowed to take pics at the museum so I have instead shared some street art photos.  In the one above, the being on the RHS is alive, and it is a feat of genius for him to be able to maintain that pose for hours on end.  I’ll make a slide show of some others if I get time…I’m just off to the Prado!

PS Very, very late on Wednesday night after some belated proof-reading of the above… here’s some Madrid street art:

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