Travelling Hopefully

15 November

Eight people had signed up to go with me to Malta on a pilgrimage. This was fewer than I would usually take, but the travel company said the trip was still viable. 

As usual, I booked a coach for those travelling from the area (my Swiss friend Sonja was understandably flying direct to Malta rather than meet us in Heathrow). We were collected from my house in Northampton at 7am.

On a good day it’s under 90 minutes to drive from my house to Heathrow. This was not a good day. Rain became heavier and heavier (which at least kept protesters away) and at various times we crawled through traffic. I was beginning to wonder if I’d miscalculated and should have asked everyone to come for an earlier start.

At 9.30am we were at the terminal. The place turned out to be very quiet, in fact I’ve never seen an airport terminal so empty. Within ten minutes we were all checked in and our bags taken. Security was also quiet. We had time for breakfast before our 11.25am flight.

Three hours later we landed under bright blue skies and warm sunshine. Our coach was waiting for us, along with a travel representative, and we made the 40 minute journey to our hotel in St Paul’s Bay. The hotel was ready for us, and we checked in.

My room was large, lovely, with a balcony and a great view. However, it offered a double bed, rather than the twin. Sonja and I were to share the room, and separate beds were preferable. I went back down to the lobby. The staff explained that they had no twins available until the next day, but there was a sofa bed in the room and they would turn this into a bed for us.

I met up with the group for dinner. Our breakfasts and evening meals were included, and the buffet offered a wide variety of dishes. I had rabbit, which turned out to be very tasty. Unlimited beer and local wine, as well as soft drinks, were included for free. You simply poured what you wanted from a tap.

Sonja arrived just before 9pm. She ate in the restaurant. When we went to the room, the sofa bed had been made up, and there was a plate of food plus a bottle of wine waiting for her. We sat on the terrace and spoke in a mixture of German and English before going to our separate beds.

16 November

We left the balcony door open, which brought in fresh air but also a couple of mosquitoes. At 7am we rose, and made a coffee in the room to enjoy on the balcony before going down for breakfast.

At 9am we gathered in the lobby to meet our local guide, Jo. The coach took us to Valletta, around a 30 minute drive from the hotel. We disembarked for a day of walking through the capital of Malta.

Valletta was built by the Knights of St John, who planned the city as a refuge for soldiers and pilgrims injured during the Crusades in the 16th century. Financial support was given by Pope Pius V and King Philip II of Spain. Work began in 1566. The streets were laid out in a grid and designed with defence in mind.

We walked past the Triton fountain and the parliament building before going on to the Upper Barrakka Gardens. These offered lovely views over the bay and less lovely ones of the multiple cruise ships visiting the island. Returning to the main streets, we tried to visit the St Paul Shipwreck Church, but this was shut to visitors as filming was taking place inside. 

We walked on to St John’s Co-Cathedral to admire the ornate interior and the two Caravaggio paintings inside. The cathedral was built by the order of St John between 1572 and 1577. The interior was designed during the height of the Baroque period, and features nine chapels. We had to queue to see The Beheading of John the Baptist and Saint Jerome Writing, the two Caravaggio paintings.

The bright sun outside was almost an assault after the dim interior of the Cathedral. Our next stop was the Archaeological Museum. Our guide talked to us about the Neolithic temples and the artifacts found in various tombs. Great pride was taken in the fact that these pre-dated even Stonehenge.

We then had ninety minutes for lunch. Most of the group found a café and took seats outside. We soon discovered that we were on the street down which a tourist train (running on tyres rather than a track) ran. This made for an interesting diversion from our sandwiches. There was time for some gift shopping before we met up with our guide again.

A walk down the steep streets brought us to Casa Rocca Piccola. This house, built in the 16th century, is still a family home but open to visitors. We admired the beautiful rooms. The owners, the Marquis and Marchioness de Piro, were good friends of Queen Elizabeth II and attended her coronation as invited guests.

I was of course entranced with the blue and gold macaw in the garden. We had a good chat, and from the way he held up his foot I wondered if he wanted to come on to my arm. But to me his body language indicated uncertainty, so I didn’t try.

After a quick visit to the World War II bunker underneath the garden, we headed out and to ‘The Malta Experience’. This was a 45 minute film about the history of Malta. There was almost too much to take in. Seems almost every major country has held possession of the islands at some point, due to the strategic position in the Mediterranean. Malta is still part of the Commonwealth, and we regularly walked past British red telephone booths and red post boxes (although the latter, unlike in the UK, did not bear any royal insignia). 

Our last visit was to the Holy Infirmary, the hospital set up by the Knights of St John in 1574. A guide took us to two levels, the one used to treat the rich, and the lower one used to treat the poor. The complex is now used for theatrical productions. 

We were collected by our coach, and taken on a quick trip through narrow streets to see the outside of the house in which Queen Elizabeth II lived for a while. The house is being renovated and should be open to visitors next year. We then crawled through traffic to return to St Paul’s Bay. 

At the hotel Sonja and I collected our keys. Our new room was much smaller, but still had a balcony this time we had twin beds. Our suitcases had been moved for us as promised, and a bottle of wine was waiting for us.

The group came together for dinner. We discovered that a table had been prepared for us, and bottled water and bottles of wine were brought out. The bottled wine was better than that on tap, so we were quite pleased.

17 November

Another mosquito buzzed around my ears in the night, and in the morning I had a bite in my right hand. Grr.

This morning also began the Battle for a Replacement Kettle. The kettle in our room clicked off after only thirty seconds, nowhere near long enough to boil water for a hot drink. We asked at reception to have a replacement brought to our room.

We were visiting more local areas today, namely Mosta, Rabat, and Mdina. We arrived at the Sanctuary Basilica of the Assumption of our Lady in Mosta at 9.15am. To our surprise a funeral had just finished, so we wondered if such early services were common.

The basilica’s design is based on the Parthenon in Rome, and the church has the third largest unsupported dome in the world. When we went inside, the staff were hurriedly sorting out the chairs and barriers in preparation for visitors. The church felt light and airy, quite the contrast to the more dimly lit cathedral we’d visited the day before.

A bomb crashed through the dome during WWII but did not detonate upon impact. A replica of the shell resides inside the church, near the gift shop.

After a tour of the interior, I paid to go up the steps to the dome. This offered views over the area and down into the church itself. I managed to take my photos, and one from across the road of the church itself, before the time set to meet up again with our guide.

We drove on to Rabat, pausing at the side of the road to take photos of Mdina. The bastions of the fortified medieval town glistened in the sunlight, high up a large hill. The town had once been the capital of Malta, before Valletta took on this distinction

Rabat, a suburb of Mdina, proved to be quite different to Valletta. Rather than broad streets, we wandered through narrow alleyways. The terraced houses bore names as well as numbers. 

Emerging on to a square, we walked down the road to visit St Paul’s Catacombs. A small museum went into great detail regarding Roman funeral and burial practices. The area has many catacombs, and we visited two sections. All of the remains have been removed, leaving behind empty ledges and holes.

We walked back to visit St Paul’s Grotto, set beneath St Paul’s Church. This is said to be where St Paul took refuge after their ship wrecked on Malta. The Acts of the Apostles states that he spent three months here, preaching and healing locals.

Afterwards, we had a half hour break. Most of us headed to a café for a drink and a sit down. The morning was already warming up, so I had an iced coffee. As I left my chair to take photos of the horse and carriage near the church, I glanced down the hill and saw very ominous storm clouds. The weather forecast had been sunshine all day, so I had not brought my coat. I made a quick trip into a shop to buy a plastic poncho.

As we left Rabat, walking down the hill to Mdina, the dark grey clouds reached us and began to release their burden. I pulled on my poncho just before the heavens opened and torrential rain began to beat down upon us. 

We stopped in a shop for people to buy umbrellas, then headed out again into the deluge to continue our walk down Mdina. Shelter was hard to find in the gardens leading to the gates of the town, so we hurried along. 

It was only part way along that I realised that we were missing one of our party.  The missing person did have my mobile number, and I sheltered under someone’s umbrella as I sent a text. No reply. Sonja and I left the group to walk back to the shop, but he wasn’t there. I tried to phone but no response. A few minutes later, he phoned me. He’d gone to the back of the shop, and when he’d emerged ‘you had all gone and left me.’ His sad tone stabbed me with guilt! He’d had problems getting a signal on his phone to contact me. I told him to meet us at the cathedral.

The rain eased as we entered Mdina. Our missing group member was sheltering at St Paul’s Cathedral when we arrived and we went inside together. According to tradition, the site was originally occupied by the palace which belonged to the Roman governor of Melite, Publius, who welcomed Paul after he was shipwrecked on the island. The original cathedral was damaged by an earthquake in 1693, and the current church was completed in 1705. 

The sun had emerged by the time we went back outside. We walked to the ramparts, admiring the views across the nearby countryside down to St Paul’s Bay. A ninety minute break for a late lunch gave us time to eat and to wander. Sonja and I visited a café whose terrace allowed to continue to admire the views, whilst she had a coffee and I had a local brewed stout.

The group came back together at the cathedral museum. We admired the huge amount of silver vessels (for communion and for displaying the host) as well as a large collection of paintings (mostly religious in nature) and the Albrecht Durer collection. 

We walked out of Mdina, enjoying the sunshine. The coach collected us, and we were back at the hotel by 4pm. Sonja and I went outside to admire the dolmen in the hotel grounds before continuing through the gardens and past various pools. The small strip of built up beach was nearby, but the gate which normally permitted access from the hotel grounds was locked.

The kettle in our room was still the original one. We stopped at reception to prod them into delivering a replacement. 

I returned to our room and watched the sunset from the balcony. Some time later the group met up for dinner, enjoying the buffet, wine, and putting the world to rights.

18 November

A slightly earlier start, namely 8.15am. We caught the 9am ferry over to Gozo, enjoying bright sunshine and views over Comino island and as we came into Gozo itself.

A rather jolly driver met us at the port. We headed off for our first destination, the Ta’ Kola windmill. This was originally built in 1725 and reconstructed in the 1780s. The downstairs rooms had displays of traditional tools and explanations regarding agriculture (grapes, olives, wheat) on Malta. 

The upstairs rooms had been the living quarters, and had been set out as if the family still lived there. We walked through the kitchen to the bedrooms. Several of us then took the steep stairs up to the top of the windmill, where we admired the mechanism.

Back out into a gradually warming day. Just a short walk away were the Ggantija temples. We visited the museum before going on the walkways to the stones. Part way there, we were thoroughly distracted by a young chameleon making his way along a rope. I had never seen a chameleon in the wild, and had no idea they were to be found on Malta. 

Our guide, who had grown up seeing chameleons, managed to pull us away. We continued our walk to the complex. The megalithic temples, which date back to 3600 – 3200 BCE, were perhaps the site of animal sacrifices. Sadly, scaffolding has proven necessary to keep the stone walls intact. A cat followed us as we made our way around.

On the walk back, we found that a local farmer had put out boxes of pomegranate seeds for sale, resting on a wall along with an honesty box. I purchased one box for 1 Euro and enjoyed the taste as we returned to our start point.

We drove through the island to reach Dwerja Bay. A rocky bit of seashore gave sight of Fungus Rock, so named because of a parasitic plant (thought to have been a fungus) which grows on the rock. The plant was believed to have medicinal properties, and was guarded closely by the knights of Malta. Unauthorised landings on the rock were punishable by three years’ service on an oarship.

Fossils, most of them sea urchins, crunched under our feet as we made our way over the uneven ground. The wind drove the sea to crash against the nearby rocks. I visited a shop selling glass works and bought some presents.

We drove on to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta' Pinu. Although a church has stood here since 1599, it has come to be called ‘The Church of Miracles’ because in 1883 two young women heard a voice asking them to pray at the site. Soon afterwards, the mother of one of the women recovered from a serious illness. Dozens of miracles have been credited to prayer at the site ever since.  The current church was built in front of the original chapel, and completed in 1932.

Our lunch break was in the fishing village of Xlendi. Sonja and I had a snack lunch sitting by the seashore, wind whipping up the waves. Ducks waddled along the nearby streets and over time made their way into the bay, complaining when a wave hit them on their attempts to reach the water from the shore. Some ducks chose simply to fly into the bay.

We had a short stop at Fontana Cottage Industry, a shop selling home made lace and local food items. Then on to Victoria, the main town of Gozo and named after Queen Victoria. Our driver expertly took us through the narrow streets until we reached the pedestrianized area. There we started our walk through the alleyways, climbing up the hill to the Citadel. We made a quick trip into St George’s Basilica, amused by the fact that most of the nearby houses had images of St George near their doorways. 

A steep stretch of street brought us to the foot of the Cittadella, the citadel. The first fortifications were built in 1500 BCE, and the present ones date back to 1622. A lift took us to the middle section, and we climbed up further to reach the Cathedral of the Assumption. 

After visiting the cathedral, we continued to walk up a steep path. This brought us to the top of the citadel, with wonderful views across the island. We walked along the rampart walls before dropping back down and making our way past the cathedral and town.

Our bus collected us and we reached the port in good time for the 4pm ferry. There was a bit of a delay at the other end when one of our group was physically ill. Either lunch or the windy ferry crossing (or perhaps a combination of both) didn’t agree with her. The ferry terminal cleaner discovered us assisting our group member in the ladies’ toilets, and kindly assisted us.

Once back at our hotel, another lovely sunset greeted us as Sonja and I went out on to our balcony. Still no replacement kettle. Yet another request at reception. Dinner, red wine, and much laughter followed soon thereafter. 

19 November

Sadly the person who had been ill the day before sent a message stating that she would not be going out with us. So I adjusted my head counting to eight for the day.

This day had been designated as ‘A Trip into Malta’s ancient past.’ Our first stop was at the Hypogeum. This underground burial complex was in use between 4000 to 1500 BCE, and accidentally discovered in 1902 by a stone mason who was laying foundations to build several houses above. No photographs are permitted, not even with phones, so all such items, bags, etc had to be left in lockers before entering.

We were each given a handset to hold to our ears for the commentary. The tour began with time in two different audiovisual rooms, screens showing us first some of the history of the rediscovery and then another extolling the wonders of the site and the starry universe.

A museum guide accompanied us as we entered the site itself. We listened to the audio commentary, and she shone a torchlight on various aspects of the temples. The first area was originally above ground. The second and third areas we visited, going down deeper into the damp cavern, were carved out from the limestone. The builders had followed the path of least resistance, hammering out the softer stone and leaving the harder in place to provide stability. 

The site was a burial ground. It is thought that bodies were laid in shelves to decompose, and then the bones were thrown further down. It is estimated that up to 7000 people had been buried in the complex, but the remains, when found, were so fragile than many bones disintegrated upon being touched.

The lower levels had been carved to look like temples, including ceilings. This has been used by archaeologists to determine how above ground structures might have originally looked. Designs, mostly spirals, had been painted in red on the ceilings, and many of these were well preserved.

The site amazed me. Readers of my travels will know that I have been to Machu Picchu and Easter Island. I also lived near Avebury and Stonehenge for a number of years, and visited those sites regularly. The Hypogeum is a worthy rival to those places. I was amazed at the detail and the level of preservation. 

We emerged back into the sunshine and returned to our bus. A quick stop along the coast allowed us to admire the Blue Grotto from a look out point. The seas were too rough for boat trips to visit the arch, so we satisfied ourselves with photos.

Our continued journey into Malta’s ancient past brought us to the Hagar Qim complex. These temples date back to 3600 – 3200 BCE, and are among the oldest religious sites in Europe. It is thought that the temples were enclosed, but the ceilings broke down thousands of years ago. To prevent further erosion of the walls, shelters were erected over the complexes in 2009.

We walked around and inside the upper complex, our guide pointing out the various structures and outlining the theories about their use. It is thought that fertility rituals and animal sacrifices were features of the worship held on site. Statues and jars were excavated from the site and were on display in the museum.

A second set of temples was down the path, nearer the sea. We admired this from the top of the hill, our guide assuring us that we weren’t missing anything by not going down (and it appears we’d only paid to visit the upper complex). 

We drove along the coast, stopping at the small village of Qrendi for lunch. Sonja and I had a small picnic before visiting Torri Xutu. The tower was completed in 1659 and was restored in recent years. The rather steep steps led to the open roof, and we admired the views before carefully making our way back down.

At a café with views over the nearby coastline, we stopped for coffees. Sparrows perched on the overhead lights, looking for handouts. The waves crashed against the rocks, a reminder as to why boats were not offering tours to the Blue Grotto.

Our last stop was at the Ghar Dalam Cave. The museum at the entrance had wall after wall of the fossils found inside, categorised by animal and type of bone. It did seem rather obsessive. 

The walk to the cave led through gardens of indigenous plants and provided views of the valley, a pillbox, and beehives. The Maltese honeybee is well adapted the local climate (hot summers, cool winters) and the shop sold honey from the hives.

The cave itself had a large entrance and gradually narrowed. Visitors are only allowed into the uppermost section, both to protect species which live inside and because a tourist injured himself in the lower regions some years ago. Fossils of dwarf elephants, hippopotami, bears, and deer show that various species have lived on Malta over the millennia. 

We returned to the hotel and were confronted yet again by our original kettle. We dropped by reception to yet again request a replacement kettle. When we returned from our evening meal, three kettles greeted us. One was the correct size for the charging pad. The other two were too large for the pad, and stood next to it. Very puzzling.

Heavy rain was forecasted for the next day, and as the evening drew in clouds began to build in the distance. This didn’t stop a group of people enjoying themselves in an outdoor pool in the early hours of the morning.

20 November 

We headed out at 10am, collected by our bus and guide for the drive to Valletta. The rain held off, although the wind was strong, as we drove through the streets to St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral. Queen Adelaide, the widow of King William IV, spent the winter of 1838/9 in Malta and wanted to worship in an Anglican church. At the time, services were held in a room at the Grand Master’s Palace, but this was not large enough to hold all those who wished to worship together. So Queen Adelaide paid for a church to be constructed. Work finished in 1844.

Shortly after we entered the church, the heavens opened. Rain hammered at the windows and several large bangs brought the altar party out of the vestry to look around. After around twenty minutes, the rain passed over, and later sunshine streamed in, creating bright paths through the smoke from the incense.

The service itself was high church Anglo-Catholic. There were around forty people in the congregation, including the nine of us. This made singing a bit difficult, as the low numbers and the challenging acoustics meant that we weren’t certain which verse we were on during one hymn. The priest rattled through the liturgy, but slowed down for the announcements and the prayers.

The communion service (or Mass, as the cathedral called it) was followed by Benediction. The host (consecrated bread) was put into a monstrance (a special metal structure designed for such a purpose). Priest and altar party knelt in front of the altar and said prayers before the priest blessed the congregation with the host, still in the monstrance.

Sunshine was awaiting us as we left. Rain hit us as we returned to our hotel. A number of us decided to eat at the hotel’s cafe, and whilst we were there a rainstorm lashed against the glass walls. Sun returned soon later, although the wind continued to bend the palm trees.

Sonja and I spent some time in the bar area, reading emails and trying to ignore the noise around us. Two people were doing modern dance in the bar area, blaring out loud music. A large group had arrived and were waiting to be assigned their rooms. Several others were playing table tennis.

I went up to our room and sat on my bed to work on photos, as the balcony floor as well as chairs and table were wet. Dinner, conversation, and bed followed in the usual pattern.

21 November

Today was our ‘free’ day, with no guided tour planned. Two people decided to stay locally, Sonja went back to Gozo, and the rest of us took the bus to Valletta. The bus station for the area was a ten minute walk from the hotel, and we were able to board a bus going to Valletta as soon as we arrived.

About an hour later we disembarked into rain. The forecast had promised sunshine, so I had rather foolishly travelled without any coat. I bought an umbrella for five euros and immediately pressed it into use.

We walked to the St Paul’s Shipwreck Church, only to be told that a service was being held inside but we were welcome to return in fifteen minutes. The rain had stopped, so we decided to sit outside a nearby café for a coffee. Just as we were finishing our drinks, the rain returned with a vengeance. We hurried inside the small establishment and watched as water gushed down the street.

Once the torrent had eased, we carefully crossed the street back to the church. The interior was similar to other ornate churches we’d visited in Malta. What set this church apart were two relics. One is said to be the wrist bones of St Paul’s right hand, the other part of the column on which he’d been beheaded. ‘I don’t believe a word of it,’ one of our party muttered. The rest of us decided it didn’t matter whether these items were real, they’d been hallowed from centuries of veneration. And it was interesting to see the bones set into a golden hand and arm, and the silver and gold head resting on the piece of column.

We split up afterwards. Three went off to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, wishing to see the cannon fired at noon. The rest of us wandered the streets, popping into shops, particularly when heavy rain returned. I managed to do a bit more gift shopping.

The group had agreed to meet for lunch. We found the café under the ruined theatre, which had reasonable prices for lunch and offered enough seats around one table. We sent a message through the WhatsApp group to advise the others where we were. They joined us shortly afterwards, looking rather bedraggled from standing in the gardens in the rain.

After lunch, we visited a few more shops. Rain once again fell heavily, and we decided we’d had enough. We walked back to the bus station and caught a bus back to St Paul’s Bay.

I dumped purchases into the hotel room, traded umbrella for waterproof coat, and walked along the seafront. Most of the local shops had the usual souvenirs, but I did finally find a mug that I liked.

Sonja had returned safely from Gozo by the time I went to my room. The group met up for dinner, over which we discussed same sex marriage and which books in the Bible were our favourites.

22 November

We woke to a very windy day, wind speed of 24 miles per hour. When we met our guide, she told us that ferries to and from Gozo had been cancelled yesterday afternoon. Sonja had been lucky to make it back to Malta.

Today was billed as ‘The Knights of St John’, although our first stop was at the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. The wind whipped up the waves to crash against the docks, and the boats bobbed and twisted in the tide. The old fishermen’s houses were now restaurants and shops, although most were shut at that time in the morning. Several groups of schoolchildren nattered excitedly as they skipped along the seafront, and a solitary white duck hovered by their feet, obviously hoping for some food.

We drove on to Vittoriosa, the first area in which the knights settled when they were given Malta as their base. Our driver navigated the narrow streets to bring us to a look out point. We braced ourselves against the wind as we took in the views of Valletta, spotting areas we’d visited on our first day. No boats or ships were moving in the harbour, although a number of superyachts were sheltering inside. We’d already been advised that our harbour cruise, due to take place in the afternoon, had been cancelled due to the rough conditions.

We drove further into the city, and our next visit was to the Church of St Lawrence.  The foundation of the current church was set in 1681, and the knights used the church as their first conventual church. During WWII, the church was bombed several times, and the chapel and dome were rebuilt in the early 1950s. 

In the nearby square, we had a thirty minute break for a drink in one of the cafes. The wind was bringing in thicker clouds, cutting out the sunshine we’d enjoyed earlier in the morning. 

We walked to the Inquisitor’s Palace. This had been built in the 1530s, and originally used for civil tribunals. In 1574, the first Inquisitor arrived. The palace itself is an uneasy mixture of luxurious rooms (now used to house various religious artwork and models) and the prison cells and torture chambers for those accused of heresy under the Inquisition. It was hard to justify how a religion supposedly built on the love of God could lead to Christians torturing other Christians.

Walking through the quiet, lovely narrow streets nearby cleansed some of the bitterness from our souls. Many of the knights had had residences in the area. We wondered how much such a house would now cost to purchase, which reminded me of the saying, ‘If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.’

We had a late break for lunch, sitting down in a restaurant around 2.15pm. I had a beer with battered king prawns. The restaurant had already put out a bench on which held a seated Santa Claus statue, next to which you could sit for a photo. 

Our final visit was to Fort St Angelo. The original structure dates back to 1274. After 1530, the Knights of St John turned it into their headquarters. The area was transformed into a large fortified structure, with four gun platforms to guard the harbour entrance.

It was quite a climb to the top, which offered views across the harbour from various gardens. We also visited the small chapel dedicated to St Anne. 

The skies were very grey by now, but the rain held off. We returned to our bus. Once we’d reached the hotel, I gave the driver and our guide their tips, thanking them for all their work on our holiday.

A last convivial evening over dinner followed. We went back to our rooms to contemplate packing up for the flight home. I was also surprised by a phone call from a bus driver waiting at Heathrow to collect us. The company I’d booked had sent him out a day early! I checked back through my emails and, yes, I’d clearly communicated Wednesday, 23 November for pick up.

23 November

We said our farewells to Sonja, who was picked up at 11.45am for her flight back to Switzerland. The rest of us were collected after 2pm for our 4.55pm flight. I had a window seat, with good views over Malta at night and, later, London at night. 

Everything proceeded according to plan and our bus driver collected us around 8.30pm. Our group reached my house at 10pm and took off for their own homes. Trip over!

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