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Vive Le Tour!

The French Pyrenees

Our first night back in France saw us camping, France Passion style, at a chevre (goat cheese) farm in the middle of nowhere important. We quickly discovered the location was a strategic decision based on the particular odour associated with goat farming.


Despite enjoying their cheese the experience was not one we will repeat in a hurry – It took a week just to get the smell out of our chilly-bin! (That's an 'eskie' for our Australian subscribers...) We spent our night battling swarms of flies and trying to sleep through rather a terrifying thunderstorm – the thunder did not clap, it did not peal, rather it boomed and seemed to roll from one side of the sky to the other taking the van with it...

In the morning we gladly headed for the hills (those little ones they call the Pyrenees) and found ourselves staying in one of France's excellent camping aire's in Pierrefitte-Nestalas. On the way we stopped to share a coffee with the locals and discussed rugby as best we could in a mish-mash of broken French, pigeon English, and charades... I think we managed to get our point across with 'Nouvelle Zelande Premiere!'

Near Pierrefitte-Nestalas

Once again we were considering ourselves out of favour with the weather gods after arriving in the Pyranees and seeing nothing but clouds. To be honest, we were beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about... Fortunately, our arrival in Cauterets (High Pyrenees) coincided with the cloud finally lifting. We seized at the opportunity to take an eye popping chair lift ride to 2300m (OK, we confess we cheated on the walking option...)

The range around Cauterets

The cheat's option

From the top of the ridge we enjoyed a stunning walk down down to a beautiful mountain tarn and back. We also managed to spot a bearded vulture and Pyrenees marmot (we initially thought it was a brown bear...)

You can see the tarn in the distance

One of the many huge birds of prey in the Pyrenees. It could be a bearded vulture, we don't know... I mean, do we look like ornithologists?

Zoom lens at maximum - I think we can be forgiven for thinking this was a small bear?

That evening we felt like we had won France Passion lotto as we found ourselves at a farm with its own restaurant on a ridge overlooking Cauterets. We shared a lovely local meal looking down onto Cauterets and watching the sun set on the mountains.

The view...

The meal...

The next morning we went back into Cauterets for lunch and to catch up on emails etc, and ended up having one of the most memorable meals of the trip... It was simply potato slices, fried with onion and cured ham, with a fried egg on top.

An apology to the foodies: we have no idea what it is called, it was just a “we'll have what they're having” job...

We headed deeper into the Haute Pyrenees on the road to Gavernie, almost on the Spanish border. Unfortunately the weather had returned to its unpleasant best, and the reason for our visit, the 'million dollar view' of the legendary Gavernie amphitheatre, was all but covered in thick black storm clouds. Based on the weather and lack of anything even resembling a view, we abandoned our attempt to walk the four hour round trip and headed back to a cheap local campsite to wait out the storm.

The next day the weather had cleared slightly, but not enough to inspire us to attempt the walk, so we packed up and headed to Luz Saint Sauveur to catch the Tour de France the following day.

Miraculously, we found a campground in the middle of the town and arrived just in time to jag the very last campsite. A quick walk around the town centre revealed nothing of interest in the way of a restaurant so we headed back to the van with a bucket of cooked mussels, half a rotisserie chicken, chips and a bottle of wine.

The fromagerie near our campground was worth a look...

On the day of the Tour, the town came alive. Thousands of people started flooding into town from about 10am onwards and filled the streets to catch a glimpse of the cyclists. It seems to us that every July, half the population of France and neighboring countries dust off the old ten-speeds and wobble around, wearing skintight racing strips, getting in the way of motorists. Unfortunately, most of these people shouldn't even own lycra, much less wear it in public!

We holed up in a little bar along the route and watched the stage on the big screen. We kept our gears lubricated with beer and rose until the leaders got to the outskirts of town at which point we went outside, found a spot on the curb and waited for the riders...


After the riders literally rocketed past us, we headed back inside and resumed our seats to watch the end of the stage.

The next day we packed up early and headed for Lourdes, the end of the following day's stage. We found a great little spot on a corner about four kms outside the town and settled in...

The TV cameras got a lot closer than this...

Rob manning the turret/sunroof

The famous ad caravan drives the stage about two hours before the riders, throwing advertising merchandise and product samples to (at?) the fans lining the roadside...

Yes, that man is wearing budgie-smugglers... Why? I do not know.

That's only half of it... Does anyone want a hat?

After two days following Le Tour around the Pyrenees, and getting ourselves on TV (the Smurf Mobile would have helped us there), we were thoroughly hooked... We spent every remaining afternoon in July catching at least the last hour of all the stages (except for rest days, and one evening on Ile Madam, when the manager of the only pub in the area refused to change the channel for us – Bastard!)

Thor Hushovd (front) eventually went on to win the stage


After careful review of hundreds of Tour photos, it seems that the one rider we did not manage to photograph (very clearly) was the eventual winner who was, incidentally, the bloke we went there to cheer on! Sorry Jeff and AJ – maybe next year?

Next update from Bordeaux and then the Atlantic Coast as we frantically try to catch up on July...

Posted by RobandEve 11:02 Archived in France Comments (1)


The Running of the Fools...

We arrived at the Wicked Van tour campsite to find 20 or so other vans stacked up at a campsite overlooking the Zarautz beach. On our way into Pamplona Eve had shown a woman's insight when she demanded that we buy 'outfits'. A good call as it turned out, because pretty much everyone else at the camp was already wearing theirs despite the festival not actually starting until the following day.


Once we got settled we discovered that half the people in the camp were either from Perth, or were Kiwis who had been working in the WA mines so we had a fair bit in common with a lot of people. Our next door 'neighbours' were also Perth locals on their way home after living and working in the UK.

The beach at Zarautz - The camp site is on the hill in the background

That night the unlimited beer and sangria was put to the test as we tried our best to round off an utterly forgettable day...

The next morning we woke up early to head into Pampona for the opening ceremony for the Festival of San Fermin. We discovered that sangria and red wine are sold in 1L cartons and that mixed together they make a kind of super-sangria that assists in arriving at the required mood for celebrations very quickly...


The festival is kicked off by a massive drunk crowd in the centre of Pamplona, a blessing, and a rocket... Not usually a recipe for good times, however somehow they seem to make it work. The centre of Pamps is pretty chaotic for the opening ceremony...

After leaving the square we dodged the buckets of water thrown onto the crowds by the people in the apartments above and weaved our way through the bands and performers lining the streets to the relative safety of a nearby bar to wait for our bus back to Zarautz...


Overall, the atmosphere was awesome and non-threatening, which after enduring New Years celebrations on K-Road in Auckland and a few New Years & Australia Days in Perth, it was refreshing to be part of a massive celebration where nobody wanted to punch anyone else... Can't put a finger on what is different, but Europeans know how to party without the violence which seems obligatory back home.

It was great to see people of all ages out for the festivities...


The next morning we were woken at some ungodly hour for the hour and a half bus trip into Pamplona. Some people had spent the night in town waiting to grab a prime spot for the running of the first lot of bulls. This fellow was a little worse for wear... although he did have the foresight to blow his sangria bladder up to form a pillow...


Our position was not exactly what you would describe as 'prime' so after watching a flurry of feet charge past us, we followed the crowd into the arena to watch the idiots (who had just completed the run) dodge some young bulls.

Our view from street level...

The arena

The grand entrance...

Don't slap the bulls, they don't like it...

You are not supposed to touch the young bulls. At all. So it was quite amusing to see the idiots that (quite literally) grab the bull by the horns get instantly flattened by a mob of angry locals who probably just go to the arena each year to lay into some of the dropkick foreigners who turn up and ruin their festival...

Excuse me, that looks painful...

The definition of stupidity




After the arena cleared out, we waited in line for a couple of hours and managed to get tickets to the second night of bullfights. We were glad we waited in line, as opposed to buying tickets from one of the twenty-odd scalpers out the front of the arena - ours cost us 28 Euro each, whereas we overheard someone saying that he had paid 50 Euros each for his (we didn't have the heart to say anything...)

Bullfights are hugely controversial. We know this. However, before passing judgment we wanted to actually experience one for ourselves...

In the arena, the crowds are huge and the atmosphere is electric...

Our view from the nosebleed section...


Where's Wally?

For those who have never been to a bull fight, it goes a little something like this:

Strong young bull in the prime of his life goes for a run down a street with a whole bunch of idiots whacking it with rolled up paper. Strong young bull is selected to fight. Strong young bull gets prodded and poked into an arena where he chases men waving capes.

This is where it gets interesting (depending on your point of view)...

Strong young bull is stabbed in the back by a man on horse back. Strong young bull tries to fight back but the horse is wearing armour and he cannot reach the man. Strong young bull runs away from the man on horse back only to be stabbed with frilly things by another man. Strong young bull is starting to get really angry...

The banderilleros – their job is to stab some frilly things into the bull to make it angry...

Enter the Matador...

Strong young bull is left alone with another man who waves a cape in his face and shouts “Ole!” Strong young bull is getting tired but the man will not leave him alone...

The matador – his job is to play with the angry bull, make it tired, and then stab it through the aorta...


The end is pretty much pre-determined...

Strong young bull is dragged unceremoniously out of the arena by the horns...

We watched a total of five bull fights over the evening and can happily say that they will be our last... Overall a very confronting experience, but we are glad that we went and saw it for ourselves.

Sunset over Pamplona

Posted by RobandEve 05:25 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

A Brief Interlude

Rob's grandmother, Rosemary.

Not long after arriving in Pamplona we found out that Rob's gran had passed away earlier that day. It was a rough time for Rob, being so far away...


The following is a brief poem written by Rob and read by his cousin Jamie at the funeral:

I do not want to speak of sadness or loss
Everyone here knows how that feels
And I think we'd all rather feel something else

I want to remember the life of an exceptional woman
A daughter, a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother
I want to remember my Gran

I remember sneaking past your bedroom
And closing all the doors so I didn't wake you
To watch cartoons at six o'clock every morning

I remember Country Calender
Fond memories don't help
I still hate that show

I remember not being allowed to watch The Simpsons
But doing it anyway...

I remember your salad sandwiches
And trying to make them myself
But never getting it quite right

I remember putting the milk bottles out
You must have been the last person in Christchurch
Still getting bottles from the milkie

I remember the old orange Escort
And learning to drive (although not very well)
I'm sure that wasn't your fault though

I remember raiding the biscuit tin (the Girl Guides never failed to sell a packet or two)
But of course you always knew
Because the next time I got peckish, the tin was full again

I remember your blue bottle collection
And thinking in March
How on earth did they survive the quakes?

I remember your steadfast faith in me
You saw in me what I could not see for myself

I remember saying good bye to you
Never meaning it to be the last...

Most of all I know how much you loved us all
And I will always carry you with me
And be a better person for it.

Posted by RobandEve 05:06 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

The Road to Pamps

3500 kilometres, 7 days, 4 countries, and 1 principality...

Introducing the Smurf Mobile... Our home for the next 101 days!

As we had to be in Pamplona for San Fermin/Running of the Bulls on the 5th of July, we were under a fair bit of pressure to drive up through Italy and across the southern coast of France to get there in time... We didn't help ourselves by deciding to head to Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid before heading back up to Pamps, which is actually quite close to the French (Atlantic) border.

The last of Italy (for now...)

First things first, we picked up our camper in San Benedetto Del Tronto. We then drove, rather nervously on the wrong side of the road, up the east coast of Italy in search of our first free camp, stopping at Ancona to deck the van out at Ikea (where else!) and to pick up supplies at the massive Carrefour. We quickly discovered that we had no hope of finding a free camp on the resort beaches so had to go a lot further afield than we had hoped... We finally 'pitched' our van for our first night in the not-much-happening-town of Fano.

The bedroom

The kitchen

The next morning we headed back inland for Tuscany, thoroughly enjoying the picturesque drive through Tuscany’s sunflower and vine covered hills. We stopped for the night in a little town about 20 minutes outside Florence called Greve in Chianti. Of course it would have been rude if we hadn't bought a couple of bottles of the local drop on the way through.


The next day we arrived in Florence and begrudgingly paid to park at 'Camp Michelangelo' which turned out to be a great call as it was only a 15 minute walk from the town centre and was on a hill that had views over Florence. We got our walking shoes on and spent the afternoon tearing around Florence managing to beat our way through the queues and make it into both the Uffizi Gallery and The Accademia.


The Ponte Vecchio

The amazing Duomo

The Uffizi gallery has a staggering number of priceless paintings from the Medici collection including works by Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Raphael, and (surprisingly) Rembrandt, and has the best layout of all the art galleries/museums we have seen so far; however, it was Michelangelo's David in the Accademia which really stole our hearts. Despite having seen countless photos and actually having a miniature replica outside our flat in Perth, we were not prepared for how huge (ahem) we mean how tall he is. The scale and detail in the sculpture is absolutely amazing.

The photo-Nazis were out in force at the Accademia so here is a photo of the full size bronze replica on the hill near our campground instead.

We managed to arrive in town for a festival and were treated to an hour of fireworks from about 10pm that night... Just when you thought they were done - BOOM!

Here's the abridged version:



We were rudely overlooked for the royal wedding guest list so we did not grace Monaco with our time other than stopping for a quick photo, and getting lost in the maze of motorway tunnels (Tom Tom apparently does not work underground...) We got out as soon as we found the right street – Unfortunately, we couldn't stop to pick up the slim, desperate-looking blonde hitchhiker on the road to Nice because the van only has two seats...


Nice was nice (sorry) but pretty dull because we managed to turn up on a Sunday. Also, half the town was blocked off for the Ironman Triathlon so navigation was nearly impossible. We did manage to find the Contemporary Art Gallery which gave us the opportunity to get out and stretch our legs. Unfortunately the main reason for our visit, Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can, was no longer there, but we did discover our new favourite artist – Yves Klein, a Frenchie who liked to paint using naked woman (instead of a brush) and a flamethrower!

Escaping the traffic chaos in Nice, we headed up into the hills in search of one of France's fabulous aires de service (kind of a picnic spot where camper vans are allowed to stop overnight for free) and found ourselves spending the the night just outside of Comps-sur-Artuby, an old Knights Templar hangout in the mountains.

Divining for water is made much easier by the numerous village fountains

The drive up was amazing and we enjoyed the magnificent mountain views on our way


The next morning a very happy Eve got to munch through her first croissant in France (did not dissapoint) accompanied with a cafe au lait. We find it quite remarkable that the French, although fabulous at pretty much everything else to do with food or drink, could not make a decent cup of coffee if their lives depended on it...


On our way past Marseilles we picked up a copy of France Passion,which is a guide book to a large number of French farmers and wine-makers who allow camper-vans to stop over on their properties for one night. Unfortunately, there were no English copies left so we ended up with a French edition. Nevertheless, we punched in the address of the nearest French winery and off we went (via a bookstore to pick up a French dictionary!)

The impressive marina at Marseilles

After Marseilles we headed to Arles for lunch, where Vincent Van Gogh lived for a couple of years and painted several of his most famous paintings.

The inspiration for Van Gogh's 'Garden at the Sanitorium'

Our first France Passion overnighter was a gorgeous little winery (naturally) and, despite arriving quite late, we were treated to a guided tour of the winery and a tasting... We walked away a little bit tipsy and a little lighter in the wallet after buying a mixed half dozen several hours later.

Drinks and nibbles in our 'living room'

Rob also had his first French language fail when he asked the young vigneron if her wine had any condoms in it! The difference between preservatifs (condoms) and preservateurs (preservatives) not becoming apparent until several days later when Rob walked past a condom vending machine in the street... The strange look now made a whole lot more sense!

Domaine L'Herbe Sainte – Their wine does not contain condoms (or preservatives...)

The next day we headed inland to check out the walled castle town of Carcassone. While the fortress walls and narrow winding streets were formerly used to keep invaders out, now invasion is actively encouraged – the walls and cobweb streets are now effective at trapping tourists inside...

We spent the morning exploring the old fortress before heading south into the Pyrenees.


A for Awesome!!! We loved Andorra despite the unpleasant weather. The fuel was forty cents cheaper than in France and a 1L bottles of alcohol cost around 7 Euro - roughly $9 AUD or $25 NZD (sorry NZ, you know we love you.)

Our citizenship applications are currently pending...

The drive into Andorra from France

The other side of the mountain

Unfortunately we had to pony up for another campground as Andorra only has about three main roads and free-camping is apparently not tolerated (advice from a fellow traveler who managed to get kicked out of Andorra a couple of years ago).

The next day we drove out of Andorra and into Spain. We reckon the cars are magnetised in Andorra, either that or people really enjoy crashing into each other - crazy bastards!


The overall standard of driving didn't really improve over the border, but at least they knew how to merge...

Scenery-wise, Spain was a bit of a mixed bag; with the green hills of the north disappearing into a massive dust-bowl in the middle where nothing grows except for angry bulls. The lack of agriculture is evident in the vast distances between small towns.

We drove into Barcelona and had a walk around the city centre before setting off to check out some of Gaudi's famous architecture...

The Segrada Familia – Construction began in 1882 and is still not finished...

The Park Guell – Gaudi's attempt at a self contained community did not work out, but the weird (Rob's word) and wonderful architecture and mosaics keep it busy enough...

We spent the night camped at a beach near Tarragona, about an hour south of Barcelona. Although not the most comfortable spot to free camp due to the beach's popularity it was very pleasant to start the next day with a early morning swim and cheeky shower at the beach.


On our way south towards Valencia, we came across some rather under-dressed young ladies apparently waiting for something...

It took us a while to figure it out – see how long it takes you. Here's a hint: They're working, but not on their tans...

Just outside of Valencia we got some bad news from home - Rob's gran was in hospital and not expected to make it, so we pulled into a campground and laid low for a couple of days to keep in touch. We did manage to pop into the town centre for a quick look around though...


While Valencia is a beautiful city, it didn't really grab us (sorry Emma)... We shared a paella in one of the many plazas in the old town area before making our way to the capital.


In Madrid we checked out the Contemporary Art Museum, finding works by Picasso, Dali, Mori, and El Greco. We also had a short walk through the incredibly manicured botanical gardens.


We didn't stay the night in Madrid despite (or perhaps because of) the city's legendary night life, choosing instead to start heading north and stop for the night somewhere on the road to Pamplona.

The next morning we took a short detour through the utterly fantastic town of Burgos (El Cid's hometown.) The cathedral was spectacular...


...and we found a great little tapas bar for lunch before continuing on our way to Pamps.

Posted by RobandEve 08:47 Archived in Spain Comments (1)

Italy Part Three

When in Rome...


After Rob broke the budget and dosed up on painkillers we set off for three days in Rome and were pleasantly surprised when we arrived. We had expected a dirty, noisy, metropolis like Athens, with terrible traffic and poorly maintained monuments. During the three days we were in Rome we had no problem with the traffic and other than the understandable wear and tear of a few hundred years or so, found the monuments to be in a great condition.

We wore tread down on our shoes on two full days of walking around absorbing as much history as we possibly could. While we could go on about the sights of Rome until we got blisters from typing to match the blisters on our feet, we will let the photos do (most of) the talking on this one...

Day One:

Early metro train to Vatican City to hit up St Peter's Square and the Basilica;

St Peter's Square (along with another Obelisk stolen from Egypt)

The Swiss Guard

Inside St Peter's Basilica

Michelangelo's amazing 'Pieta'


Next on to the Vatican Museum;

Raphael's 'School of Athens'... It is a breathtaking fresco in its own right, but with Leonardo da Vinci depicted as Plato chatting to Aristotle, portraits of Pythagorus and Michelangelo in the foreground, and a self portrait of Raphael on the right side, the subtleties are too many to list. We definately recommend a Google...

Another Raphael... This time the Transfiguration (Rob's favourite).

The famous ceiling of the Sistene Chapel. Not really allowed to take photos in here but Rob snuck one anyway due to the number of other people ignoring the rules...

After a quick bite we headed to the Castel St Angelo;

You'll recognise the Castle from Angels and Demons...

And then to Palazzo Spada to see Boromini's Perspective;

Borromini's Perspective: An impressive optical illusion. The passage is only about 10 metres long, the statue at the end is only 60cm tall and at the end there is only enough room for a small child to stand up!

Before checking out the Pantheon;

The Pantheon

Inside the Pantheon...

Next we headed off to the Trevi Fountain via the Church of Sant'Ignazio to check out another optical illusion.

The cupola at Sant'Ignazio. The trick is it doesn't exist - the dome is painted on a flat ceiling!

The Trevi Fountain by day...

Day Two:

After a sleep in, we headed to the nearby Colosseum;


The ticket for the Colosseum also gave us access to nearby Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum;

The Roman Forum looking down from Palatine Hill

We walked through the Forum to the Piazza del Campidoglio which was designed by Michelangelo (who else?) It has a bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius in the centre of the square, and statues of the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollox guarding the marble staircase at the entrance;

The bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius... Unfortunately just a copy, the original has been moved to the nearby Capitoline Museum.

Castor and Pollox

Right next to Capitoline Hill is the massive monument to Vittorio Emanuele II (Italy's first king);


After grabbing a quick happy snap from the centre of the roundabout, we walked back to the Pantheon to the Piazza Della Minerva to check out another Bernini fountain;

The Elephant of Minerva - The Romans loved obelisks more than the Egyptians, apparently...

We followed the crowd into a random church just off the Piazza and discovered an early Michaelangelo sculpture;

Some idiot came along afterwards and covered the Good Lord's jiggly bits with a lump of bronze... We reckon Michelangelo would still be spinning in his grave!

One of the amazing lead-lights at the same church

After strolling through Rome's boutique fashion area (including a mandatory stop at the official Ferrari store) we visited the Spanish Steps which were pretty enough but were teeming with too many tourists to be really memorable...

A stroll around the river took us to the Piazza Navona to admire Bernini's Four Rivers fountain. The square is a hive of activity with street artists, buskers, gelati venders, and the unavoidable throng of tourists.

Bernini's Four Rivers

We found an awesome little cafe and shared apertivo and mojitos before heading to a nearby church to check out a famous Caravaggio painting. We had barely stepped inside before Eve was corralled out the door for being “too scantily dressed” in a sleeveless top. Despite there being other women in the congregation wearing far less than Eve, and even one taking confession wearing a stringy summer dress (there maybe something in that?), the Catholic Fashion Police were not to be swayed. We trudged back to the square and consoled ourselves with a pizza and jug of wine from a famous Pizzeria in one of the small streets surrounding the Piazza.

On our way back the apartment we retraced our steps to admire the Trevi fountain at night before staggering home across the cobbles.

The Trevi Fountain by night

Naples & Pompeii

As we got off the train in Naples we were instantly on edge.The city is dirty, gritty and the feeling of imminent danger hits you like a sledgehammer as you step out onto Piazza Garibaldi.


Rob's spidey sense was tingling as we walked through the streets to our hotel, the rather optimistically named Hotel Casanova. After dropping our packs in our room and mentally steeling ourselves to never see them again, we caught a local train to the ruins at Pompeii.


It could have been due to our Rome-tired feet or maybe the fact that the majority of Pompeii's most impressive and best preserved frescoes have been ripped out and put in museums, but we found the site underwhelming. While Vesuvius looms in the background reminding us of what occurred at this site, we felt that what had been left behind showed little of what the ancient town had been through.

Mt Vesuvius doing what it does best: Looming...

This guy had a bad day in 79AD

One of the paintings on the wall of the brothel...

One of the remaining frescoes...

Later that afternoon we headed back to Naples and bravely risked our lives wandering through the rubbish strewn streets of old town in search of the perfect pizza. Da Michele (of Eat Pray Love fame) did not disappoint, despite only serving two types of pizza - Margarita and Marinara.

Apparently the Mafia (who control waste management) insist on too high a price for most people, so the streets are piled up with rubbish.

The Duomo in Naples

Pizza at Da Michele

Needless to say, we were quite pleased to leave Naples the next morning with our bodies intact and all our possessions accounted for. We bought the cheapest tickets we could find, which meant a total of four different trains and more than eight hours traveling across the country...

Although we didn't have time to stop for long, we saw the famous monastery at Cassino as we passed through the town. An extremely tight connection and a little stroke of luck? saw us miss our train in Avezzano. As a result, we decided to crash for the night in Pescara, before catching a morning train to San B the following day. We ended up spending the night at a fabulous B&B near the train station (thanks LP!) and had a pleasant meal out at a local restaurant. The B&B came complete with its own resident peacock; quite charming until it started barking (yes, that's the best description for the noise!) at 6am the following morning...


Posted by RobandEve 05:16 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

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