Royal Caribbean’s Italy Cruisetour Maximizes Time & Place
By Karen Rubin
Time. That may seem odd, but that’s what I appreciated most about Royal Caribbean Cruiseline’s organized five-day “cruisetour” to Venice, Florence and Rome. The term “cruise-tour” might seem odd – it is a multi-day land tour that cruise passengers would take before they board their ship. It gives you a much more immersive experience than a shore excursion while the ship is in port.
I realize this as we enter Venice, having been picked up at the Marco Polo Airport, our luggage quickly taken from us, ushered into a waiting luxury coach, and wisked to the Plaza at the foot of the New Bridge. Once you cross the bridge, you step into a timeless tableaux which would have been familiar to Marco Polo, a place where “mass transportation” is by water, the canals like our roadways.
It’s only a 10-minute walk to our hotel (our luggage has been taken onto a boat and will be delivered to our room), but our small group makes our way slowly – the views that pop up at every turn stopping us in our tracks. We come to the Hotel Principe, selected for its prime location right on the canal, right in the heart of the Old City, its European ambiance and architecture so ideal for Venice. And I realized the second best benefit of this organized visit: access.
We would soon appreciate the benefit of access, as we were able to enter the most important places, those you have imagined and dreamed about and read about, without waiting on lines.
Time and place and access.
I became a world traveler when I was 16 years old. That was the year I backpacked around Europe and we had come to Italy. We had been so entranced by Florence, we wound up spending two whole weeks of our precious summer there. I don’t regret staying so long in Florence; but I always regretted missing out on seeing Venice.
I was jealous of my sons, who got to visit Venice with their grandparents on separate trips – my oldest son celebrated his 16th birthday here.
As I re-acquainted myself with Italy, I was reminded of that European adventure so many years ago, when every day began with problem-solving about getting food and lodging, figuring out transportation, planning out what we would do, coming upon attractions which we may or may not have been acquainted with, waiting on line to enter, and never really coming away with a fundamental understanding that you would get from a knowledgeable guide.
Of course, the purpose of that trip was different, and I was a different person. At this stage of life, you bring a context, a perspective, and (dare I say) a deeper appreciation.
You could imagine how much expectation for Venice I had built up after all those years.
And so I didn’t miss a moment when we arrived in the early afternoon, and the sun was bright.
It was the end of the tourist “season”, this late October day, and though there were still crowds around Venice’s most famous and important place, Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), there were not the hoards of summer.
I knew that our organized sightseeing was scheduled for the next morning, and this whole afternoon was mine, to serendipitously explore and discover.
And so I set out, wending my way through the warren of narrow cobblestone streets, dazzled and enchanted at every turn and at every bridge crossing.
A nice man showed me how to read the direction signs on the buildings – pointing this way toward Piazza San Marco, or back to the Piazzale Roma… like clues on a hunt.
In fact I am a kind of hunter – a photographer on a hunt for those classic, painterly scenes, and to capture the chance moments that show the personality, hopefully with good lighting.
You feel as if you have stepped into a canvas – a fact reinforced when you see etchings of Venice as it was in the 1700s, when the city-state was a leading world power.
I cross bridge after bridge, each one opening up to a view with color and form, shadow and light – here a narrow canal between two buildings, where a gondola glides…
And then I come upon the Ponte di Rialto – the highest bridge that overlooks where the canal is wide and turns so you see this gorgeous vista. I make a point of returning at sunset, to get the different colors.
The shops along the way are beautiful – many with stunning art glass for which Venice is so famous – theMurano glass factories on an island a short distance away in the lagoon.
Clothes, leather, shoes and boots – all showing high style and quality. Even the trinkets sold in the street are of lovely quality. I come upon stands with Venetian Carnival masks – works of art – and I know what I will be bringing back home with me.
The outdoor cafes, the trattorias, the osterias (we learn the difference from our tour director that evening when our group meetings together for an orientation) all so lovely, creating and adding to the atmosphere. To sit at one is to become part of the tableaux.
Buildings look “distressed” – broken stucco exposing brick underneath and brick under that – after all, they have been here for hundreds of years. You can’t stop thinking that you are walking through a film set or a Disney street – and realize that this place is what the theme parks try to emulate. And that’s the point: even with the masses of tourists who come from all over the world – Israelis, Indians, Australians, French, Germans, Japanese – there is an authenticity. Venice is very much a vibrant community, a neighborhood, and you see kids coming home from school, shoppers at the street markets.
But no cars. Not a one. This is a walking city (not particularly accommodating for disabled, though, and no real way to make it so, especially considering how ancient the buildings are). Periodically, you hear the clack of luggage being rolled over the stones, as people make their way to and from their hotels.
“Mass transit” is by the water bus or the more expensive water taxi, and for that once-in-a-lifetime experience, a gondola.
Ah, the gondola… It is just as I hoped and imagined. Every bridge you cross affords the chance of seeing a gondola gliding by – some canals as narrow as tiny alleys. That is the key advantage of the gondola – the 35-minute excursions take you to places that the waterbus doesn’t go.
Gondolas are an ancient tradition – we see them represented in the old prints, and in the museums. They were the chauffeured limousines of their day, taking the master of the house to work and the lady of the house shopping, often serenading her. They used to be colorfully decorated with the family’s coat of arms, but after a devastating plague, the gondolas all were painted black. As you walk along, you come upon gondolas “parked” in the canals. We found fees ranging from 60 to 100 Euros, (about $100 to $140), serenading costs extra.
Even if you don’t actually take the ride, the gondolas create that unmistakable magic of Venice.
The water bus costs 6.50 Euros (about $10) a trip (it would take about 30-40 minutes by to get from our hotel to San Marco and it takes about 45 minutes to walk). The water taxi is 65 Euros, but if you have a big enough group, it can be worth it.
I have been following the arrows on the building on what seems like a scavenger hunt to find San Marco, my sense of anticipation growing … And then I emerge from an archway to see, for the first time, the grandiosity of this place.
It is astonishing, really, when you realize just how old these buildings and monuments are – and how they have survived.
But when I return the next morning, after a combination of rain, high tide, and wind, the famous San Marco Square is flooded – platforms have been methodically arranged that visitors use to walk on to get to the entrances… the water even comes into the famous Basilica.
And then I learn the horrible truth: Venice is sinking. Its very survival is endangered. Instead of the city flooding a few times a century, the city is flooding several times a year. These treasures of western civilization that seem eternal are threatened with extinction. Much of the city floods, but San Marco Square is the lowest point, so the flooding is now more frequent.
“See it now,” I am told.
It is a stunning revelation to gaze out over the enormous square, to see the famous towers, the Doge’s Palace, the columned buildings that flank the square, exactly as they have for hundreds of years, and to stand as if on a precipice that it could at some point, the foundations could sink and these structures that seem eternal, crumble.
See it now.
Highlights to See
I am so grateful for having had that sunny afternoon and stunning sunset, because the next day’s weather was gray, with periods of drizzle and rain.
No matter. Venice is glorious, magical even, in any weather, the atmosphere becoming dramatic in the reflection of the water, a visual confection.
To save time, Marie-Agnes Dulis-Lange, our tour director, has arranged for a water taxi – these gorgeous, sleek boats like an elongated Chris Craft – to take us from the hotel’s back porch directly to San Marcos Square, giving us the opportunity to enter the city as merchants and traders and diplomats and travelers of old would have done, and we walk rather triumphantly through the two columns that form the official entrance to the city. The water taxi takes about 10 minutes, compared to about 35-45 minutes to walk from the hotel, giving us that much more time to visit.
All along the Grand Canal are the former palaces of rich merchants – the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of their day – now converted to consultants, banks and corporate offices. A few are still private homes.
From here we can see the famous Cipriani Hotel, an island unto itself, just closed for the season.
The lines have already formed to enter Venice’s most important attraction, the Doge’s Palace, but we have an appointment, and meet our local guide, Antonella, and receive our personal audio system.
Lines have already formed to enter one of Venice’s major attractions, the Doge’s Palace – like the White House in that it was the seat of government (the Doge was the governor), as well as the Doge’s residence. I look at the line and realize that is where I would have been, but our group has a reservation.
Our group has a tour director, Marie-Agnes, who is with us from our arrival until our departure, and who manages all the nitty-gritty about our stay, serves as our concierge with her insights and knowledge of everything, and travels with us from city to city until our tour is ended. Marie-Agnes is a virtual encyclopedia, from her many visits to each destination, her own knowledge, and the many times she has heard the various guides. But in each city, the sightseeing is led by a local licensed guide, who is really an authority. They are typically freelancers – people who have been trained in history or art history – and hired by the tour company.
We are given our personal audio system, so the guide does not have to shout and we do not have to stand huddled around trying to hear. This is a marvelous innovation; you can always hear the guide, even if you wander off a bit to give something a closer look or to position yourself for a photo. It is also helpful if you get lost – the guide can summon you back (this is only somewhat successful, we discover).
I realize as I listen to the guide that I would not appreciate what I am seeing on my own.
Yes, I would see the overwhelming beauty of the rooms, but would I know the opulence was intended to overwhelm a visitor? That supplicants from afar were intended to feel outdone?
Entering, you have the same sense of awe as any other visitor – the building is like the White House, the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court combined – with another notable aspect: dungeons.
It is this aspect that gives rise to some of the more intriguing “back stories” about the Palace – the “Bridge of Sighs” over the Rio di Palazzo, erected in 1600 when the old horrendous prison, located in the basement which flooded and were infested, was considered uninhabitable and replaced with the new “more comfortable” prison; the bridge connected to the Inquisitor’s rooms in the main palace. It was Lord Byron, though, who came up with the name, “Bridge of Sighs” to suggest the sighs of condemned prisoners glimpsing their last of sunlight and fresh air.
We also learn of the prison’s most famous captive – and escapee- Casanova, the infamous lover who was imprisoned by the Inquisition. He managed to escape from the most secure prison of its time, probably because his supporters bribed the guard.
I see a face with a hole. Antonella explains that citizens could complain or accuse anonymously this way – they could alert officials to a plot or expose a corrupt official. Three officials would be on the other side. Why three? Because one could be corrupted, two could be in cahoots, but not three, or so was the theory.
We are dazzled by our first view of the Golden Staircase to the second floor, where there are three waiting rooms for Ambassadors. You look around at the fabulous – and huge – paintings by the likes of Tintereto, famous for his use of light – and Titian, dating from the 16th Century.
She explains the symbolism depicted in the paintings: the unity of God and Government, the “Doge” figure depicted by the unique hat; the lion, symbol of power; the city’s patron saint, Saint Mark. “Venice was so powerful – it was guided by faith and protected by St. Mark.” The paintings become the stories of the people and events.
The 47 richest families in the world lived here during Venice’s Golden Age – the noble families were the merchants who drew their riches from the colonies in Mediterranean and Constantinople. Even middle class and common people were satisfied (except for the few plots against the government).
In the 17th century, the richest families not only demonstrated their riches by having palatial homes, but by purchasing power in government and by putting their own images on the facades of Baroque churches. Today, there are only five or six of these Venetian families left, and two that still occupy the fantastic palaces on the Grand Canal.
We come into a grand room that was the Senate Chamber. Anyone could be elected who was 35 years old (which seems to contradict the point about the ability to purchase power). They were elected for a two-year term (to prevent any individual or family from controlling power), and then had to wait three years before they could be elected again.
We see different styles – reflecting the fact that the building was destroyed by fire more than once – and the materials that were brought from the trading centers – such as gold leaf from Constantinople.
The opulence reflected the power and the glory brought by Venice’s predominance in trade, but that hinged on the ability of its navy to protect the merchant ships.
But then, Venice made a fatal mistake – they sought to expand their empire to the interior but did not have the same skill to lead an army. They exhausted their funds, and when the Turks attacked, there was no more money to build ships to protect their colonies. When the colonies were conquered, Venice lost its source of wealth and power.
There are lessons here.
There are also lessons in the torture chambers that were connected by secret staircases behind these grand chambers. Antonella describes this in the room known as the Court of Judges – where a council of 10 judges would preside. “They were terrible judges,” Antonella says. “They would hang a person from his hands tied behind his back for two days until they could extract a confession.” There are lessons here, as well.
In this room there is a Lion’s mouth, where people would deposit anonymous denunciations. The door was opened by three men each with a different key. The Council of 10 would then call in the person being denounced, who would then be taken to the torture chamber.
The ceiling shows some gray-painted panels where the rest are vibrant colors – they are place holders for the panels taken by Napoleon (and now in the Louvre; Italy continues to ask France for their return.)
We next are taken into a vast room measuring 50 meters by 25 meters, without any columns to support the ceiling. The wooden beams for the ceiling are made of a single piece, 25 meters long. The largest oil canvas in the world – 25 meters wide – fills an entire wall. There had originally been a fresco there, but after it burned, Tintereto was asked to replace it in 1577, and over a 10-year period, made sections of the painting that were seamlessly put together.
Our guide leads us over the Bridge of Sighs – where we can imagine how a brief glimpse out of a window brought tremendous solace. Some prisoners opted to become rowers on ships crossing vast seas as their only way out of the prison. There are two passages along the Bridge of Sighs – one for prisoners, and the other for lawyers and family to visit the prisoners.
(The Bridge of Sighs is included in a guided Itinerari Segreti, “Secret Itinerary”, tour of the Doge’s Palace, which you can book by appointment. This 90-minute tour is conducted in Italian; it also includes the prisons, torture chambers, and other rooms that normally aren’t open to visitors. From June through September, tours are scheduled daily except Wednesdays at 10 a.m. and noon. Reserve at least a day in advance.)
We leave the Doge’s Palace to find ankle-deep puddles along the square (some people make the terrible mistake of taking off their shoes, but you should know that Venice does not have a sewage treatment system. Enough said.)
The water is worst from November through April – a combination of the wind and tides and rain. But floods, which used to be relatively rare, and now very frequent and part of the reason is the erosion of barrier islands. There is some talk of installing underwater dams to control the water, and there is even an effort to rebuild an island to redirect the tidal flow.
We make our way along the platforms into the Basilica di San Marco, the oldest in Venice, dating from 829 to house and honor the remains of St. Mark that had been brought from Alexandria. Though the building was burned down twice, the present structure dates from 1071 (the thought is mind-boggling). The gilding, the mosaics, the artwork of this Byzantine structure are breathtaking.
At the end of this visit, we are on our own again, but Marie-Agnes has offered an optional excursion by water across the lagoon to visit the world-famous Murano glass factories.
The brief ride by water taxi gives us a chance to see the Lagoon from a different perspective. The Adriatic Sea is just beyond the island. Marie-Agnes tells us. She points to where shipyards still are, and where centuries ago, some 10,000 people worked building a ship in a matter of weeks.
Murano is a group of islands with 6,000 inhabitants. In the 13th century, all of Venice’s glass blowers were sent to the islands because of the risk of fire to the city from the kilns. At its peak, there were 70 factories operating. They developed their own technique.
At a time when murder by poison was popular to dispatch unpopular rulers, the renown of the Murano glass spread worldwide with word that Murano glass would explode if exposed to poison. Kings and Queens, the royal and the merely rich all ordered Murano glass.
But Venetians kept the secret of how the glass was made and kept the glassmakers virtual prisoners on their islands.
We visit one of the most important glass factories, housed in a former church. Georgio, a master artisan with 52 years experience blowing glass, has just 10 seconds once he takes the molten glass out of the kiln to shape it before it hardens. Within a few moments, he has fashioned a horse rearing up its legs.
We learn that the red color is made with gold, which is why the red-colored glass is more expensive; blue comes from silver, which was probably the first color produced.
After the tour, we have just about 20 minutes more to explore the shops and the “village” on Murano, before we have to get back to the boat and return to San Marco Square.
There, we are on our own to explore. I already have it in my mind to see the Museum Correr – the other major museum in the Piazza San Marco, which is included on the ticket (13 Euros) with the Doge’s Palace.
By now the rain has picked up, but we go along a portico, where there are gorgeous shops and cafes, and as we come to the grand Florin tea room, a chamber orchestra strikes up, and we linger with our panini and take it all in.
The museum is a perfect counterpart to what we have seen and learned in the Doge’s Palace – here there is more of the history and culture of Venice, laid out in artifacts and art. It is self-guided, but there is literature in various languages in each room, so you can get a sense of what you are looking at.
The 20 rooms offer a “fascinating journey” through the Republic of Venice, its government, the city-state’s relationship with the sea, the weaponry, everyday life, trades and crafts, public festivities and celebrations.
In Room 6, you learn about The Doge, who symbolically embodied the dignity of the Venetian State but in practical terms had little more power than any other magistrate. There is a rare 15th century “corno” – that special hat worn by the Doge.
In a room named for the Pisani Library, there is an 18th century chandelier of Murano glass, which I better appreciate having seen one of the Murano factories.
One room contains a collection of just about every coin struck by Venice from its founding in 820 to its end in 1797, providing a veritable three-dimensional timeline of Venice’s nearly 1,000 years as a city-state. You see Venice’s first gold coin, the ducat, that was issued in 1285, rivaling Florence’s florin.
“Venice & the Sea” emphasizes what its naval supremacy meant in terms of becoming a world power. The key was a merchant fleet that was swift and well organized, and protected by a navy. Venice had “one of the most feared fleets, but lost its position after Atlantic exploration and the debilitating effects of conflict with the Ottomon Empire.”
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
A cartological room shows the expansion of the city. Even way back then, there was great concern over protecting the environmental balance with the lagoon (though I doubt they used that phrase in those days) – but every abuse was punished severely. “It is an unlikely city; survival was always delicate.”
A masterpiece in this room is a 1470 map that represents a birds-eye view of the city. Another shows the years of Venice and the important people – they are numbered and named in a legend.
I look with absolute delight at the cases containing the original books written by Casanova, that famous rapscallion, from the 18th century.
A room offering paintings of “festivities” from the mid-17th century, shows a fleet of gondolas and a procession of boats for Ascension Day coming into San Marcos Square just as we did that morning. Another depicts a curious event known as “bull baiting during Carnival;” the scene is gory and odd.
I’ve spent a couple of hours in the museum, and now make my way from the square, back through the warren of streets. And then I chance upon an exhibit, “Treasure of San Salvador” in a theater where there will be a performance of Vivaldi that night.
Venice is like this wonderland of culture, a place where culture is a source of national pride.
The dinner that night is “on your own” and our tour director, Marie-Agnes, has made a recommendation. As a group, we walk over the first bridge, and I spot a sign in Hebrew and Italian, pointing the way to the Jewish synagogue, and we find ourselves in the Jewish Quarter (actually, the signs say “Ghetto”). It is Shabbat, and as we walk through a portal into a narrow street leading into district, I am surprised to come upon a group of religious Jews gathered for dinner in a restaurant.
We come to our restaurant, Osteria ai 40 Ladroni (Osteria of the 40 Thieves) that Marie-Agnes picked it because it is one that is popular with locals and off the beaten-tourist-track. It is absolutely delightful; at the end of the meal, a man with an accordian comes around to the tables to play and sing.
But after our own meal, we find our way back to where we had seen the people gathered for Shabbat dinner. It is the Chabad of Venice, and we are welcomed in for an extraordinary experience sharing Shabbat in Venice.
In fact, the Jewish Ghetto of Venice is the world’s oldest, and is where the word “ghetto” is derived.
Jews first were allowed to live in Venice in 1385, when they were needed as money-lenders to finance a war with nearby Chioggia. They were never allowed to assimilate with the city’s population, and in 1516, were confined to a small area, literally sealed in behind locked and guarded gates. Their economic activities were limited to operating pawn shops, trading textiles and practicing medicine. Whenever Jews left the Ghetto area, the men had to wear a yellow circle stitched on the left shoulder, while the women had to wear a yellow scarf.
The first Jews to settle in the ghetto of Venice were Central European Ashkenazim, who constructed two synagogues: in 1528, the Scola Grande Tedesca, and later in 1532, the Scola Canton. The synagogues are still intact, and occupy the rooms above and adjacent to the Jewish museum.
I am curious whether somehow, a remnant of the ancient Jewish community managed to survive Mussolini and Fascism. But lo and behold, in this gathering are Jews from Chicago, Brooklyn, Florida. The Rabbi, who said he was Italian, said there were some 400 Jews in Venice (compared to the peak of 4,000, in 1650). I never find out if any remained who were descendents of the Jews of Venice’s heyday as a merchant superpower in the 1500-1700s. My sense is that this is a deliberate attempt to repopulate Europe’s Jewish communities decimated during the Holocaust.
(Avventure Bellissime Tours offers a two-hour “Cannaregio & Jewish Ghetto” tour, that focuses on both the Canneregio sestiere, with homes of homes of famous Venetians like Tintoretto & Titian, and the Jewish Ghetto; admissions to the Jewish museum and synagogue are separate; a private tour is also available (2442/A San Marco, 30124 Venice, Tel +39 041 5208616, Fax +39 041 2960282, email email@example.com.)
A perfect place for a Venetian holiday, The Hotel Principe is contained within the Palazzo Calbo-Crotta, a 15th century gothic palace and one of the most ancient palazzos of the city. One side faces the Grand Canal, with its own landing for gondolas and private water taxis that adds to the splendor and charm, where there are tables, as well; the other side fronts Lista di Spagna, a lively and colorful street just a short walk from the Santa Lucia central railway station.
A four-star hotel, The Principe is absolutely lovely – the bedroom is small but comfortable, the bathroom very small (actually smaller than you would find on Royal Caribbean’s ships, but at least it’s private). And you don’t mind at all, because it is in the absolutely best location (some of the rooms face the canal), with the most perfect atmosphere.
The ceiling is well over 20 feet high – it seems as high as the room is wide – the appointments just lovely, a trompe d’oeil on the wall that looks like the delicate curtains of a four-poster bed – you look twice to realize it is not real.
Each morning, we are served a lovely breakfast buffet (included in the cruisetour) – scrambled eggs and breakfast meats, fresh fruits, yogurts, cereals and granola, croissants and rolls and breads, cheeses, juices, and a coffee machine so you can help yourself to whatever style of freshly brewed coffee you desire. The waiter wears a white dinner jacket and white tie.
Around the hotel are some stunning examples of Venetian glass – many from the glassworks on the island of Murano. And I take note of the etchings that show Venice of 200 years ago, yet you could almost match up a photograph from today.
As I come to appreciate the hotel more and more, I realize another advantage of this tour – I would never have found the hotel on my own, and even if I could find it, probably could not get in because the best accommodations are blocked by travel companies, like Kuoni, which is the ground operator for Royal Caribbean’s European cruisetours. I think of how I first came to Italy, when I was in college, armed with a Eurailpass and “Europe on $5 A Day”. We would come into the train terminal and walk from there, stopping in at the recommended hotels to see which had rooms at the best price. Each day we would chart a course and have to take care of basic needs – like eating.
Time and access. This time, traveling with the group, means I have more time for myself, and do not have to take care of the basic elements (and what is not pre-arranged, the tour director can give you suggestions.)
Another reason to appreciate a group tour is that most everything is prepaid, and most tour operators “eat” the difference of changing exchange rates without passing along surcharges. That is the case with the Royal Caribbean cruise tour, when the dollar fell by 30 percent or so against the Euro. In addition, the tour operator gets the benefit of bulk buying. What it means for you is that hotels, meals, admissions to museums, local transportation are prepaid and you get a substantial savings over what you would have to spend out of pocket. You feel it when you go to buy in the shops, or sit down at a café, or go out for meals that are not included in the package.
Of course, you pay a premium for an escorted tour, but you are still getting value back, in the services provided. Between the better rates that the tour company gets and the shrinking purchasing power of the greenback, you are scarcely paying any more, and in some cases pay the same or less, particularly by purchasing a packaged tour. There is probably a small premium for an escorted tour such as we are on, which I chalk up to “value for money.”
Some weeks after we return, there is a news story about Venice being hit with a flood 62 inches-high – so high, they can’t put out the platforms, and even water taxis can’t travel because people can’t stand at the taxi stops. It was the fourth highest tide since 1872, when the city started keeping records. The last time Venice saw such high waters was in 1986, while the all-time record was 76 inches in 1966. There is criticism of the local mayor who has impeded a plan to build a system of dams.
The $5.5 billion project, called “Moses” after the Biblical figure who parted the Red Sea, has been under construction for years and is expected to be completed by 2011. A new story quoted the company building the barriers saying that had the system been in place, the city would not have been flooded.
See it now.
The morning we leave, alarms warn the city to expect flooding. By the time we leave the hotel after breakfast, the platforms have already been put out in front of the hotel. We walk back over the “New Bridge” (a bit of contemporary controversy) back to the transportation plaza, leaving the Old World behind – at least until we arrive in Florence.
For more information about Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and its cruise-tours, visit www.royalcaribbean.com.
Monday, 29 December, 2008
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