a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘croatia’

the joys of serendipity :)

My journey to Zagreb was definitely mixed.  Both food and entertainment on KLM were sub-par and then there were issues with the plane in Amsterdam so we arrived later than expected and my luggage didn’t make the journey for a couple of days.  The hotel transfer I’d booked didn’t work so I had to find my own taxi but then I arrived at the hotel and everything changed!

The hotel wasn’t perfect.  Most staff were amazing but there were some that still adhered to surly and uncooperative Soviet era customer service standards.  The arrival staff were part of the great ones so that really cheered me up as I had only the clothes I was wearing and had worn new shoes, which seemed really comfortable at first, but were proving to not be comfortable at all worn for over 24 hours straight!  I stayed at the Arcohotel Allegra, which sadly recently closed.  I have stayed in some of their other properties and it’s a good value choice with a little more style than value usually gets you.

Much like Zagreb was a random choice, my luggage woes forced me into the city center to try and find some wardrobe options until my luggage arrived.  The big shopping street in Zagreb is Ilica.  It’s well worth your time to discover.  It’s a little extra challenging to shop in foreign cities and is definitely more pleasant when you don’t NEED anything but I discovered eastern Europe has gotten pretty stylish but at much more wallet friendly prices than in the west so it’s definitely worth putting on your itinerary.

Another area to check out is Vlaška.  It’s a charming street filled with well-preserved one-storey houses and traditional crafts workshops

cool croatian craft beer

Another wonderful surprise was the quality of eating and drinking, all at a wallet friendly price.  The best place for a fancy cocktail was in my hotel at Joe/s Bar.  Since it is now closed, a good alternative is the art deco bar at the Esplanade but it will hit your pocketbook harder.  If you want great value, check out Caffe Bar All In at Draškovićeva 31 – my first beer in Zagreb and a great introduction to the thriving craft beer scene.  If beer is your thing, also look for Pivnica Medvedgrad at Ilica 49.  I decided to take a chance and it was fabulous – an

beer heaven 🙂

outdoor beer garden in the back where you can sample 7 different craft beers and eat delicious and very filling rich cheesy štrukli, a Croatian speciality.  Don’t be in a hurry…

Croatian wine is also spectacular both in flavour and value as I learned in Dubrovnik.  It is next door to Italy so it’s not surprising the wine is so good but it’s still a big secret to most of the world.  My favourite glass was an outdoor patio near the fountain at the Esplanade Hotel.  I discovered you want the independent outdoor café near the Esplanade, not the Esplanade patio – the view is the same but the price differential is significant.  I also had a memorable glass of wine at the Café de

quite the decor

Paris just off Ilica (Trg Petra Preradovića 5) when I needed a break from shopping and a bathroom.  It’s worth stopping just to admire the over the top décor.

For dinner, there are plenty of options.  I ate in different parts of the city.  One memorable meal was at Vinodol, recommended by the charming guy on the front desk at the hotel.  It’s on the expensive side for Zagreb but, if you have been hanging out in western Europe, it will seem great value. Another good option is Agava on Tkalčićeva Street.  It’s also a more elegant option and there are lots of choices on the street for every budget.  The surprise option was the Hemingway Bar Bistro.

channeling paris 1930s

I worried they were just using Papa’s name and I would be disappointed but I was hungry and there was a lovely patio with a view of the square so I took a chance and even returned for a second visit as the ingredients were fresh, the portions plentiful and

spectacular view

the prices reasonable.

If it’s quirky local souvenirs you are looking for, check out Kloto on masarykova 14.

I mentioned the Hotel Esplanade in my last post.  I flew from Zagreb to Belgrade and then spent a couple of nights in Zagreb before heading home so splurged and stayed at the Esplanade.  If you appreciate grand, old world hotels, it is worth the extra dollars.  I did have a drink at the bar because it’s beautiful (and the bartenders are highly skilled) but skipped the outdoor bar and the restaurant as it was easy to eat and drink well in Zagreb for much less inflated prices.

My final recommendation for Zagreb would be to look for a good weather day and then do Zagreb 360.  It offers an outstanding view over the city as there are very few skyscrapers in the Old Town.  I went for sunset, which was sublime.

The charming young servers I encountered assured me tourists were discovering Zagreb and you need to go sooner than later.  It’s a beautiful city filled with great eating and drinking where you can still feel like a pioneer tourist.  Having seen the fate of Prague first hand, I am sure it won’t last 😉



surprising croatia!

I finally have time to write something for the blog and it is sadly poignant to be writing about Croatia the day they lost to France in the World Cup Final.  But how amazing their World Cup journey has been and France needed some luck to surpass them.  It’s a great metaphor to how you will feel as a tourist in Croatia.  It’s a tiny place but filled with all sorts of wonders from incredible Mediterranean sailing to fascinating world history to delicious cuisine – and it has only recently been part of the tourist map (and the World Cup) so what it has accomplished in such a short time is extraordinary.

So… back to the tourist trail.  If you are lazy – or short of time – there are some attractions that are mostly on level ground although they span a wider geographic area than I had anticipated.  Getting exercise in Zagreb is easy 🙂  Your route will depend on your starting point.  We’ll start at Ban Jelačić Square and branch out from there.

pretty park

A beautiful place to start is Nikola šubić Zrinski Square.  It was a meadow until the late 19th century when it was turned into an elegant public square.  A meteorological post and a bandstand were donated to the city by wealthy citizens and joined by a fountain known as “The Mushroom” shortly after the opening of the Zagreb waterworks in 1878.  There are also some museums in this part of town but I didn’t check them all out.

many treasures

My pick was the Arts and Crafts Museum, which I would recommend.  The highlight was a good collection of art deco pieces.  It’s a good insight into the development of arts and crafts in the Balkans.  The museum is next to another, more famous, statue of St. George.  It’s on Marshal Tito Square where you will also find The Croatian National Theatre, the Well of Life and Zagreb University.

The most spectacular public space is King Tomislav Square.  There is a monument dedicated to Croatia’s first king – the warrior who united Croatian lands for the first time.  There is lots of green space for lounging.  Opposite the square is the Main Railway Station.  The railway arrived in Zagreb in 1862, connecting it to Vienna and Budapest.  Visitors exiting the railway station were treated to a spectacular view of Zagreb.

art pavilion

The square also houses the Art Pavilion.  The Art Pavilion was built for the 1896 Budapest Millennial Exhibition using the latest technology and then dismantled and reassembled in Zagreb following the exhibition.  There are several art deco buildings next to the square that reward a slow walk and a sharp eye.  The other beautiful building is the Hotel Esplanade, built in 1925, to

historic hotel

accommodate guests on the Orient Express in high style.  These days you can stay, dine or drink at the hotel and pretend you are in an Agatha Christie novel 😉

If you are ambitious and interested in historical architecture and landmarks, there are some other things you can check out a few streets away.  The Kalina House has Art-Nouveau inspired ceramic tile details, including stylized bats. Nearby is Zagreb’s first skyscraper at the corner of Masarykova and Gundulićeva.  The nine story building set records in 1933 Zagreb.  This is Nikola Tesla territory and you will find a statue of him reminiscent of Rodin’s The Thinker.  It’s also worth looking for the Oktogon off shopping street Ilica.  It is an elegant reminder of the trajectory of commerce over the centuries – a spectacular arcade full of extravagant materials rather than a Fedex cardboard box on your doorstep…

A final quirky thing to search for is The Grounded Sun.  It’s an unusual bronze sphere celebrating the sun.  It inspired Davor Preis to create the Zagreb Solar System – metal spheres representing the planets are placed in positions all over the city.  The sizes of the planets and the distances separating them are all in exact proportion to Kožarić’s original sun.  A quirky way to explore intriguing Zagreb…

over to the dark side ;)

It’s certainly worth checking out religious Zagreb but you will spend most of your time – and have the most fun – in the secular part, which is now pretty much the entire town.  Look for The Bloody Bridge.  It is an alley connecting Radićeva with Tkalčićeva.  It is definitely a highlight of a visit to Zagreb.  In the past, there was a creek separating church-controlled Kaptol from the secular settlement of Gradec.  Everything on the east side of the creek belonged to Kaptol and everything on the west side to Gradec.  The bridge over the creek was the site of many battles between the opposing sides.

adorable 🙂

The bridge was torn down in 1899 and the creek was paved over creating the lively commercial Tkalčićeva street.  No doubt the entrepreneurial ventures have changed over the decades but it is still full of small boutiques, cafes, restaurants and bars worthy of repeat visits.

Close to Tkalčićeva is the Dolac Market.  It is an open air food market and will remind you that you

strawberries to remember…

are in the Mediterranean.  Even if you don’t have any facilities to cook anything, you can buy luscious fruit that has the full flavour of the sunshine it has received.  If you’d like a souvenir you can take home, consider olive oil.

You can also wander up the hill via Radićeva.  You will pass a statue of St George after he has slayed the dragon and then you will come to the Stone Gate whereby you can enter the Upper Town.  It was built in the Middle Ages and there is a small chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary who is the patron saint of Zagreb.  Kamenita ulica (“Stone Street”) is the site of the oldest pharmacy in Zagreb, founded in 1355 and still in business.

While your journey in this part of Zagreb is almost exclusively about history, do check out The Museum of Broken Relationships.  It is small but they have done a fantastic job with the curation.  There are all sorts of poignant stories told via objects and correspondence.  There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

Opatička is a pleasant stroll past markers of Zagreb’s history.  From there you can head to St Mark’s Square, site of the picturesque St.

amazing roof

Mark’s Church.  St Mark’s Square was the main square of the settlement of Gradec and the heart of the secular Upper Town.  St. Mark’s Church was built in the 13th century. Over the centuries additional details were added in different styles, including the distinctive roof tiles showcasing the coat of arms of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia (added in the late 19th century).

There is also a beautiful baroque church on St. Catherine’s SquareSt. Catherine’s Church was built by the Jesuits in the first half of the 17th century.  Be sure to check out the view over Zagreb from behind the church.

If you want a break from climbing hills you can wander the Strossmayer Promenade.  It is a tree-lined path with beautiful vistas of the city below.  Also look out for Lotrščak Tower.  It is the only

worth the climb

preserved mediaeval tower from the 13th century fortifications.  It is famous for its cannon, which is fired every day at noon.

From there you can head down to Ban Jelačić Square.  This is the main square of modern Zagreb and you will likely pass through it several times.  It has been the city’s commercial centre since 1641.  If you are ambitious you can walk.  It’s downhill now!  You can also take the 66 metre long funicular that connects the Upper Town and Lower Town, the shortest passenger cable railway in the world.  Of course, if you walk, you can indulge in a treat in one of the myriad cafes around the square without guilt 😉


a lot to explore…

I ended up in Zagreb somewhat by accident.  My original plan was to fly to Amsterdam on a great seat sale but the algorithms worked differently if you flew Europe to Canada or Canada to Europe, which made the flight several hundred dollars higher than advertised.  I’ve been to Amsterdam a lot so I just picked a location that gave me a better deal so I ended up in Zagreb!

I had considered spending time in Zagreb on my way to Dubrovnik but I didn’t have time so it was a virgin travel experience for me.  As usual, I was really busy before I got on the plane and I knew enough about Croatia to just arrive and figure it out sitting in sidewalk cafes.  The charm of arriving somewhere having done almost no research is that the trip will be filled with surprise and – if you get lucky – you will be totally charmed by the discoveries.

Zagreb absolutely fits this profile perfectly.  Croatia as a destination is amazing and still fairly under the radar.  That is changing fast though so don’t wait to plan your trip.  Dubrovnik is already swarming with tourists but you’ll still get a friendly welcome and great prices in Zagreb.  There is enough to see and do to fill several days, especially if you are a history buff.

ancient ‘hood

The tourist board publishes a Zagreb Step by Step guide, which may be available at your hotel.  It’s an excellent resource with details on the key attractions grouped by neighborhood as well as aerial photos and maps noting where everything is located.  As a tourist, you are likely to be focused on the ancient part of the city.  The west has done a lot more marketing but the east is full of complicated history and historic monuments that will make you feel like you are on discovery rather than a packaged holiday with way too many others ticking off the famous sites.

The old town is a bit hilly and covers enough territory that you will want to allow yourself a few days to cover all of it.  You can move randomly or at whim or you can follow the course of history.

I hadn’t appreciated how old Zagreb was.  To see its beginnings you will have to climb a hill.  It’s possible settlements were established as early as the 8th or 9th century.  What is known is that a religious settlement was established around 1094 on Kaptol hill.  The first bishop of Zagreb was a Czech named Duh (which actually means “spirit) appointed by King Ladislav.

famous twin towers

zagreb origin story

A cathedral was commissioned and is a must see destination.  The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary has two soaring twin towers and is a defining symbol of Zagreb.  The cathedral was added to and repaired over the centuries so it includes all sorts of different architectural styles as whatever style was popular at the time was incorporated into the expansion or restoration.  Renaissance walls were added between 1512 and 1521 to protect the city from Ottoman Empire raids.

There are other sights to check out once you have walked up the hill.  It’s a peaceful place and allows you a chance to wander in a unique atmosphere as this part of the city was a religious compound cut off from the more secular Zagreb that evolved around it as the centuries transpired.  It will inspire you to further explorations of the charming nature of this city still under the radar of mass tourism.



the stormy seas of independence…

By pure random chance, I happened to be in Croatia a few days before the Scots voted on independence.  You cannot, of course, time your vacation to Croatia to coincide with such an interesting time to be in a Balkan state.  There is no question the Balkans are a fascinating place – historically, culturally and geographically.  A visit is really rewarding.

It’s rare for me to see a random post on facebook that I really feel is worth sharing but I am going to link to this one as it is a witty representation of much I have observed of world politics.  Not all countries are represented and there is no Croatia imagery.  But the Canadian quote sums us up rather succinctly.  I am a huge fan of history and know far more about the facts and dynamics of my own country than most politicians, less alone most voters.


I understand the seduction of independence, flag waving and nation states.  But we would all be better served in the 21st century to be getting together and trying not to let the planet turn into Mad Max…

elaphite islands

elaphite islands

Anyway, to the travel experience!  One of the most unique aspects of Croatia is the abundance of islands to explore.  Many are tiny.  Some are not even inhabited.  It is a playground of fantasy for sailors.  I like boats but my sailing qualifications more or less end at a pretty good ability to tie knots thanks to my early years as a Brownie 😉

So, I thought I would sign up with Amico for a cruise of the Elaphite Islands.  It started pretty slow as apparently the ship is filled by numerous travel agencies so you start to wonder if you are going to leave the harbour…


They do ply you with homemade brandy before lunch… perhaps so you won’t realize nothing is happening? 😉  But eventually the trip gets underway and you bounce over the waves and reflect on the clear blue skies.

And – hopefully for you – that will continue for the remainder of the day.  Our cruise was a little different… at first the rain was benign and easy to ignore but it wasn’t long before the skies opened up and people had water running down their faces.  Being from a city where rain is a daily possibility, I was prepared.  I just put on my fleece and positioned myself under my travel umbrella.  Girl scouts are prepared 🙂

I was impressed by some young guy trying to frantically unfurl the canvas coverings that were meant to protect the ship in bad weather.  I think that should have been the job of the crew but customer service is still being developed in eastern Europe 😉

Apparently the gods did not totally hate us and we had a brief interval of sunshine when we reached our first island, Lopud.  The beach was deserted, the outdoor bar opposite the dock was closed and the monastery was under renovation so it’s obvious that, like most people from lovely climates, the Croatians are kind of wimps 🙂

I decided I would be adventurous and follow the signs to the mysterious art installation up the hill.  It was a great choice.  I saw a lot of the island, especially the flora, and the art installation offered a disrupting perspective that is what art is supposed to do!

It was called “Black Horizon”.  The customer service was eastern European style so had no idea what I was doing… but it looked like you went behind the curtain… it was totally black.  It was a former communist country so wasn’t sure about safety standards so crawled around the edge of the room so that I didn’t break my ankle or plunge into an unseen pit.  After a few minutes, the room did not seem absolutely pitch black and I could see a tiny strip of white light where there was a tiny break in the wall – the horizon!

experiencing art

experiencing art

I’m not sure the artist’s intentions but it was a really interesting visual and emotional experience, especially for someone living in a very safe western country where being thrust unexpectedly into a blackened room is unlikely to be an everyday event.

By the time I got back to the boat for lunch, the rain clouds were threatening again.  But it ended up being serendipity.  No one wanted to chance eating lunch on the roof of the boat so we took turns squeezing into the tables on the main deck, which resulted in random and unexpected pairings.  Most of my lunch time was spent with the guy who had battened down the hatches in the boat and his best friend.

It was pretty obvious as soon as they spoke that they were from Scotland.  Ryan’s dad was a fisherman so that was why he knew what to do on a boat when rain came calling (he is Scottish :)).  His friend Peter was more the suave ladies’ man.  Ryan was especially patriotic and very keen on the independence vote.  He had also worked in Norway so we became friends with a Norwegian guy since I had been to Norway only a couple of months ago.

My new friends convinced me I should just hang out at a pub with them for the next two islands.  On a sunnier day, I would likely recommend a different strategy.  But there is also something amazing about travel when you find a couple of people who can create the catalyst to turn an everyday event into a memory for the nursing home.

rocking the waves!

rocking the waves!

Making friends with Ryan and Peter totally changed the day.  It had been pleasant enough but a little boring as a solo traveller.  But we spent the trip back to Dubrovnik on the upper deck on really choppy seas.  The rain had stopped but the weather was angry.  What most people didn’t realize is that it’s better to be on the upper deck when the waves are high.

Ryan kept running the free (questionable and homemade) wine to the upper deck.  Peter had portable speakers so kept the tunes running.  A few people tried to dance but the waves made that more act of comedy than act of seduction.  But I ended up being part of an international impromptu party on a rocking (literally!) boat on the Adriatic Sea.

When we finally exited on our groggy sea legs, Ryan announced it had been one of the best days of his life.  I would have to concur 🙂


port city economics…

I am still alive… no capture by Somali pirates (Captain Phillips is on in the background) or more mundane calamities… just clients wanting me to work – how dare them 😉  But still stories to tell so will try and post them all before I get on another plane…

Port cities tend to be gorgeous.  Port cities also tend to be popular.  And prone to the lure of the potential dollars cruise ships might offer.  It is likely obvious by now I have never been on a cruise ship – and I really doubt I ever will be.  But I live in a city where floating hotels sit in the harbour pretty much every day.

But here I am not a tourist… and think the city is big enough to absorb the hordes without every street being filled with fanny packs and iphones.  Dubrovnik is not so large… so a little of the magic faded away as I descended on the Old Town post-breakfast just in time to cavort with the cruise ship hordes.

Mostly it was a shock from the explorer splendour of my first post-rain moonlight dappled view.

The advantage of cruise ships is that the passengers only get a few hours off the ship.  I was a little obsessed with the idea of going to Montenegro and managed to stumble across a placard organizing tours so signed up immediately.

not your average walled city

not your average walled city

The agent also provided great advice for navigating the town.  Wait until circa 3pm to hit the city walls.  The cruise ship passengers will have run back to the ship and you will have the city almost to yourself.
It ended up I was not as alone as I hoped… but I walked some parts of the city walls alone – and mostly it was a tiny handful of fellow travellers.  I wandered for so long that apparently I was on my second round before I got kicked off the circuit.  The starting point is not very clear… but the route is spectacular.

Castles, city walls, moats, containers for tossing boiling oil on would-be medieval terrorists… you can never be bored by this stuff – but I have seen a lot. So the city walls of Dubrovnik are spectacular!  They should definitely be on your list.

I would recommend going super early or late in the afternoon to avoid the cruise ship hordes.  While they are in full

sculpture with a view...

sculpture with a view…

descent, hit a museum or a beach.  I went to the Museum of Modern Art.  The art didn’t really blow me away but the setting was spectacular – and there was some cool sculpture that looked particularly enrapturing in the light.

It was unclear the exact price for that museum but the museum pass advertised seemed like a decent deal so I just went with the flow.  If you will be in Dubrovnik for a few days, I think the museum pass is a good deal.

You can also wander the cobblestone streets of the Old Town.  When you get off the main drag, there are far less tourists and – in good weather – lots of stalls selling local crafts and foodstuffs.  I would especially recommend looking for olive oil.  I learned a long time ago to try the local olive oil in southern Europe.  It is also about terroir and is as nuanced as a fine Bordeaux.

You should also wander the side alleys.  I wasn’t sure if it was safe the first night.  I think it probably is.  But it is definitely safe – and romantic – to wander in the daylight.

DO NOT be lured into dining by random touts.  I was tired and it was OK but every other meal I had in Dubrovnik was so much better I would really recommend a bit of research in advance.

getting lost on the city walls

getting lost on the city walls

Even when you have to share it with a lot of strangers, Dubrovnik is without doubt a place of fantasy and magic… I’ve just come back from DisneyWorld so I know a thing or two about that kind of stuff…

Hey, I have lived many lives so we will be talking Mickey in the future… and Mickey’s world is pretty spectacular… but very artificial… if you want a real world place that feels like a 15th century Walt was throwing pixie dust around, Dubrovnik will not disappoint 😉

welcome to the hotel california, er, excelsior…

I am pretty sure the Hotel California does not exist.  But, perhaps, the Eagles took a vacation in Dubrovnik and stayed at the Hotel Excelsior…

It’s a fantastic hotel and I am a super fan so highly encourage you to stay there.  It’s not cheap but you will get used to that in Dubrovnik.  It’s not Scandinavia – but it’s western Europe pricing in eastern Europe so you will hear people complaining.

There are lots of cheaper places you can go in the world so go there until you have the budget for Dubrovnik because staying at the Hotel Excelsior is really worth the price tag.


There is a beach along with a gorgeous indoor pool.  A spa.  Four different restaurants.  A bar with a view – and live music on certain nights. A sumptuous breakfast, including great Croatian sparkling wine.  The spectacular view while you are eating breakfast all part of your room rate.  There are world class views from every level and the walk to the old town is under 10 minutes, maybe 15 in heels 🙂

You will need to pay attention though!  Part of what makes the hotel so spectacular is that it is built into the side of a cliff.  But that is also what makes it hard to leave… the exit varies depending on where you are trying to go and the signage is a bit confusing.  Of course, if you use the elevators I am sure it is a lot more straightforward but there are old-fashioned grand staircases so I always use them to get extra exercise.

I got even more extra exercise as I kept going up and down staircases trying to figure out how to get to reception and out of the hotel!  After a few false starts, I finally had success and spilled out into the warmth of a Mediterranean evening.

As usual, I was fighting jet lag so had a short nap upon arrival so that I wouldn’t fall asleep in my dinner.  It proved to be a great plan as it meant I was still awake enough post-dinner to venture into the Old Town.

It is easy to be seduced to never leave the hotel but I did come to see Dubrovnik.  If your travel plans mirror mine, I would highly recommend my itinerary, born of pure chance.

As usual, I had been working crazy hours so that I could escape from my regular mundane life so my research was pretty sketchy.  But that can also work in one’s favour.  You just have to be lucky enough to be heading for a destination that feels cinematic.

seductive or what?

seductive or what?

I was almost falling asleep on my feet but as long as I didn’t sit down I figured it should be safe to do a little exploring.  I am so glad I did.  It was my most magical night in Dubrovnik.  I’m not sure if it was Monday night… or the end of the rain.

It’s worth it any night but that Monday was especially magical.  There are two gates to the Old Town.  From Hotel Excelsior you will walk through the Pile Gate.  The other gate might be equally spectacular.

how often can you cross a drawbridge?

how often can you cross a drawbridge?

My journey involved crossing the drawbridge and then meandering through the old city walls like a denizen from Game of Thrones, finally emerging in the town square.  You will feel like you have been transposed onto a film set.

What I hadn’t anticipated due to my lack of research is that the Old Town is lit up at night.  The streets glow, the stones beneath your feet having been polished by over 500 years of scuffed leather.

The stained glass windows of the church will captivate you.  The interplay of light and shadow on the ancient walls will toy with your senses.  It’s not often you get to feel truly medieval – even if your modern footwear gives away your true genesis.

spectacular stained glass

spectacular stained glass

I didn’t want to fall and hit my head on the polished cobblestones because I was too tired to stand up so I had to reluctantly head back to the hotel.  But I walked slowly, lapping up the atmosphere of this unique place.

I hadn’t yet learned its history but I knew it was the kind of place people would fight over.  Luckily for me, I didn’t have to worry about the strife, just imagine it as the stones told their stories and I crossed the drawbridge back to the hotel.  This time I paid close attention so that I would spend the night in my comfy bed, not curled up in a corner of the stairwell, unable to stay awake for another flight of stairs…


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