The Bridges of Rome

It is very hot in Rome at the moment so last week, when a friend invited me to the launch of a book written by a relative of hers, I wasn’t too keen on being trapped in a hot bookstore. Luckily, she sent me a copy of the invitation and I saw that the event was to take place by the river in the evening. In the summer, a good part of the river bank is lined with little temporary cafes, restaurants and shops and I thought it would be in one of these. At least it would be cool by the river!

When I got there, I was surprised to find that the event was being held on a boat and we were going to go on a little cruise along the river. I had never been on a boat on the Tevere so I was excited to be there. The boat had an open space at the top where we were seated and an area below where food and drinks were served.

The book was essentially about the bridges of Rome and as the boat left the dock, we started out with a quiz on how many bridges there are in total (I said 10 but there are 37!), which one is the oldest (the one at the Isola Tiberina which dates to between 62 and 37 BC, I got that right at least but little else…). After the quiz, as we passed under the bridges, we were given a most entertaining account of Rome’s bridges, their history and related anecdotes.


The Tevere is about 20 to 30 metres below street level and feels cut off from the city. At every bridge, there are steps going down to the river bank where the atmosphere is very different from that along the embankment at street level. Being in a boat gives one yet another perspective. Castel Sant’Angelo was originally the Mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian. Over subsequent centuries, more and more levels were added culminating with Papal apartments at the top. It was the first time I was able to see the different levels so clearly. Both the Castel Sant’Angelo and the Palazzo della Giustizia are gigantic at street level but don’t seem as dominating from the river though just as imposing.


What I enjoyed most of all was seeing the little floating swimming clubs and the life of the river which one has no idea about when at street level. I’m not sure I would want to swim in the Tevere and I didn’t see anyone in the water though I did see plenty of people having a drink in the club bars on the boats. It was great to see people kayaking and canoeing and possibly practising for Dragon type boat races. There were runners and people taking their dogs for a walk along the river bank. I wish the river was more on a level with the street but one has to remember that the areas adjacent to the river wouldn’t exist without the embankment on account of flooding.

As we returned to Ponte Sisto where we had started out, the sun had just set and we saw San Pietro bathed in orange light. A beautiful sight at any time but even better from a boat.

By the time we docked, it was too late to have an aperitivo by the river but I hope to do so before I return to Toronto next week.

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Pentecost at the Pantheon

Firemen on the Dome of the Pantheon

For many years, I have been wanting to go to the Pantheon on Pentecost Sunday and this year I decided to do it. Pentecost was a week ago on Sunday, June 8th. I had marked the date on my wall calendar months ago so that I wouldn’t forget. Pentecost falls on the 50th day after Easter Sunday and commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and other followers of Christ. In the Old Testament, it was called the Feast of Weeks, occurring 50 days after Passover and it celebrated the end of the grain harvest. In the New Testament, it was associated with tongues of fire coming down on the Apostles as they were celebrating the Feast of Weeks after the Ascension, giving them the ability to speak in foreign tongues and enabling them to spread the Word to people of all languages.

You may be wondering why I wanted to go to the Pantheon on Pentecost Sunday. On this day, firemen climb the Dome and throw red rose petals into the Oculus which is a circular opening at the centre, an amazing sight I believe called ‘La Pioggia di Petali’, the rain of petals . The tradition is believed to date as far back as the 7th century when the pagan temple was converted to a Christian church. Mass on Sunday at the Pantheon is at 10am and the doors open at about 9.30. I knew that I had to get there early so I arrived just after 8 am. To my surprise, the line-up was already around the block. I joined it anyway hoping for the best and as I stood there, the line kept on extending. I’m sure it went as far as Piazza Navona though I obviously didn’t want to lose my place by going to see. The Pantheon holds about 600 people so at best, I hoped I might just about squeeze my way in. At about 9.45, we had reached the Piazza of the Pantheon when we were told that it was full and that the doors were closed.

Such a disappointment, as I could see the firemen at the top. The Piazza was jammed with people and there were various vehicles belonging to the Fire Dept. I don’t even want to try and imagine what would happen if a fire broke out inside during this event as the Pantheon only has one door and no windows.


A Doorman at one of the hotels on the Piazza told me that he started his shift at 6.30 am and that there were already people lining up. Next year, I will go after Mass so that I can at least see the petals on the floor. If you want to see the event, check out this link on You Tube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlBKdizKgSY
No photograph of mine could ever capture the firemen at the top nor the magic of the rose petals descending so it’s worth watching if you have the time.

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A Visit to Veneto

Receiving holy communion for the first time is an important rite in the Catholic Church and usually takes place when a child is about 7 to 10 years old. Considered as a milestone, it is an important day in Italy, and is celebrated by family and friends. I am lucky to be included in Loris’ family celebrations and was duly invited to the First Communion of his nephew Nicola’s daughter Edel.

Nicola and his family live in Veneto in a small village close to Belluno at the base of the Dolomites, a very long drive from Rome. We drove north past Florence and then went east towards Venice after we reached Bologna. As we drove north from Venice, we passed through acres of vineyards, prosecco country, and further north, the Dolomites came into view. They are spectacular and with the cool spring we’ve had, there was still quite a lot of snow on the mountains. We spent the night in an Agroturismo Albergo (Albergo Coe) with a wonderful view. I looked out of my window in the morning to see Lake Santa Croce in the background, lush forests, and just below the Albergo a little cottage with a farmer feeding his sheep.

The church where Mass was being celebrated was in another small village. Everybody gathered outside while the children receiving their First Communion formed a little procession with the priest behind them, so that they could walk up the street and into the church in a ceremonius way.

Immediately after Mass, there was a surge to the bar which happens to be right next door and plenty of toasts were raised with prosecco of course! Then we all trooped off to another village close by for lunch, a gargantuan feast consisting of six courses. We started with an antipasto of hot and cold baccalao (salt cod), a pastry roll filled with asparagus tips and sauce, pasta with ragout, and two lamb dishes with vegetables on the side. Following this, there were two different types of cakes as it also happened to be Edel’s grandmother’s birthday. I could barely rise from the table after all this!

Everybody retired to Nicola and Eleonora’s house for further socializing. I managed to fit in a walk not only to get some exercise after the lunch, but also to get a sense of the surrounding countyside. It was truly gorgeous
walking up the hill toward the snow capped mountains with spring flowers still in bloom.

I wished I had another day to walk in the mountains and enjoy the scenery but we had to leave very early the next morning to return to Rome. Thank you to Nicola and Eleonora for a wonderful weekend and to Roberto for a lot of driving.

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Cynthia and Me

Our beloved sister Cynthia left this earthly realm on May 1st. I am so sad that I can’t continue this blog without talking about the influence she had on my life. We are ( I guess I should say were) a family of five siblings and she was the eldest. My first memory of her was when I was about 3 or 4 years old. We lived in a small town called Nyeri in Kenya where there were no schools, and Cynthia had just returned home from boarding school in Goa. My older brother and sister were still away at school and my younger sister was not yet born. So there was just Cynthia and me at home and she took me under her wing, the baby sister.

One of my earliest memories is of her telling me wonderful and inventive stories. I may have been a fussy eater as I remember her telling me stories as I ate, urging me to swallow before she would continue with the tale. I think the outcome was that I ate, but very slowly so that I could get her to tell me more. I eat slowly to this day!

Since there were no schools in Nyeri, it was she who taught me how to read and write. I think she may have been learning to type at the same time and she would type out things for me to read as there were no bookstores in Nyeri and so I didn’t have any children’s books. When we moved to Nairobi and I had to go to real school, I skipped a couple of grades and it was all new to me. I had no concept of doing tests and being graded. She told me not to worry about grades but to just do my best. She took an interest in what homework I had and taught me how to prepare for exams. Thanks to her, I always came first in my class.
When I was at University in Ireland, she and her husband came to visit. I didn’t know how to cook Indian food as my mum had done it all by eye and there were no recipes written down. She put together specific recipes with exact quantities which I still use to this day. She was a wonderful cook and thought nothing of inviting large numbers of people over for dinner and cooking lots of dishes.

My dad, who was a keen fisherman, taught her how to fish and she loved to take her children fishing. The children would compete with each other to see who could catch the most. Of course the cleaning and cooking was left to her which she did with great joy. Her son Trevor takes his young son salmon fishing on Vancouver Island and you can see see how pleased she is with their catch a couple of years ago. I could go on with more memories but suffice to say that she was a kind, generous and caring sister. Life was hard for her when she was young and she took care to make life easier for those of us who came after her. It’s hard to believe that she is no longer with us. We miss her and wish she were still here. I hope heaven is as she dreamed it would be.

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Easter Eggs and Migrating Birds

I hope you all had a happy Easter. I flew back to Toronto for Easter and spent it at my sister’s cottage in southwest Ontario. Not as sunny and warm as in Rome but we had a good time nevertheless, with a traditional Easter Egg hunt in the garden on Sunday for the children, something we have done for years. One of the ‘children’ is now a parent with two little children of her own so the tradition continues. Not-yet-two-Norah didn’t quite know what to make of this but she soon got the hang of it. The fun was in the finding more than in the eating and there was plenty to find as you can see above, so that kept us all amused for a while since even those of us who had hidden the eggs couldn’t remember exactly where we had hidden them!

Long Point Sandspit

In the afternoon, we went to Long Point, the longest freshwater sandspit in the world and a UNESCO Bioreserve. A unique habitat, which is also a stopping point for migratory birds. Every spring and summer millions of migratory birds stop here on their way to, or back from, their breeding grounds. Bird Studies, Canada has a bird banding station there so that they can track the route of the migrations of various species.

There are nets strung up between the trees where staff and volunteers constantly check for trapped birds. The birds are freed, tagged with a metal band on the leg, weighed and assessed for fat content. The amount of fat provides a measure of whether or not they have just arrived (no fat) or if they are ready to take off again (a lot of fat). All this is done with remarkable speed and efficiency and the birds are flying off again within less than 20 minutes.

There are other stations worldwide, which do the same sort of thing and the numbered tags, which are part of a database, indicate the route of migration. The time when the bird was banded is also noted and indicates how long the bird has taken to reach its destination. A Rose Breasted Grosbeak was determined to have flown from Long Point to Colombia within 36 hours which is amazing enough to be miraculous. It was a fascinating insight into bird migration, something I had never thought about much before.

We finished off Easter Sunday with a delicious dinner of roast lamb. It was a lovely way to spend Easter Sunday and I felt lucky to be there for the weekend.

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A Trip to Matera

Every year, a different town or region constructs the nativity scene (presepio) in the Piazza outside St. Peter’s Basilica and it is usually designed to reflect some aspect of the region. A few years ago, the city of Matera, which is between Naples and Bari, made the Presepio featuring the town as a backdrop. It was so beautiful that ever since then, I have been wanting to visit it. When my sister and brother-in-law were here, I persuaded them to join me on a trip there.


Matera was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 and and voted the European Capital of Culture for 2019. Dating back to Paleolithic times, it is perched on the edge of a deep ravine. The caves and dwellings on the hillside, occupy two areas called Sassi, the upper Sasso Barisano and the lower Sasso Caveoso. The original dwellings were scooped out of the rock. Over the years houses were built on top of the caves and now there seem to be houses on top of houses which looks quaint until you try to get to one of them and have to climb numerous steep and winding stairs.


Across the ravine which is now a National Park, Parco della Murgia, you see caves dotting the hillside. Some used to be dwellings and many were churches since it was a refuge for monks from the Byzantine Empire from the 8th to 13th centuries. The park is full of wild life. As we were walking along the road on the edge of the town, we looked over and saw wild boar who had taken up residence in one of the caves and were sitting at the mouth enjoying the sun.

In the town, churches carved out of the rock (Rupestrian churches) abound. Newer churches have been built on top of a few of them precariously clinging to the edge of the hillside. Inside the Rupestrian churches, there are Byzantine frescoes many of which have unfortunately faded and fallen into disrepair despite attempts to preserve them.

Walking around the Sassi felt like being in Biblical times. Matera went through many sieges and colonizations and suffered a long period of extreme poverty which was written about by Carlo Levi in the book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ (Eboli is a nearby town). People were crammed together in the caves often with sheep and other animals in the same space. Life was hard. In the 1950s, the government tried to remedy the situation by building apartment blocks close by and rehousing the people in these so there is also the new town of Matera. The Sassi themselves have become a bit of a tourist showcase though people still come to gather in the larger piazzas.

It was the day before Lent when we were there and lots of people with little children all dressed up in costumes gathered in one of the larger Piazzas to listen to music. However, the next day, it was only the older men who came to the Piazza. I guess the women were at home either fasting or cooking.

We tried some of the regional foods including a type of wild onion called lampascioni which, being a seasonal onion, used to be associated with lent. It didn’t look or taste like an onion but was interesting to try.

The local wines, Aglianico and Primitivo, were good and we had no trouble tasting them with a tagliere, basically a tray of cured meats, local cheeses and other nibbles. There was no need for dinner after one of these.

Tagliere

I was glad to have had an opportunity to see Matera and I hope its designation as a cultural capital for this year brings money to the city without it becoming even more of a tourist showcase.

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The Villa Farnese at Caprarola

Villa Farnese, Caprarola

After visiting Bomarzo, we still had a good chunk of the afternoon so we decided to visit the Villa Farnese at Caprarola which is not too far from Bomarzo. The Farnese family who were landowners in this part of the country had an important and complicated history. At the risk of being boring, I’m going to give you a short summary as I was quite confused by the number of Farnese palaces so I read about the family. The Farnese were originally soldiers and landowners but gained recognition and status when in the 14th century, they fought for the papal states, were gifted land by the popes of the time and married into noble Roman families. Giulia Farnese, noted for her beauty and known as Giulia La Bella became the lover of Pope Alexander VI, Roderigo Borgia, who was appointed Pope in 1492. She persuaded him to favour her brother Alessandro who was subsequently appointed as Cardinal-Deacon at the age of 25 by Pope Alexander VI even though he hadn’t yet been consecrated as a priest. Understandably, he became referred to as ‘the petticoat cardinal’.
Although he did become a priest and was pious, he had a Roman mistress from a noble family with whom he fathered four children. Highly capable and with wide artistic and philosophic tastes, he became powerful and rich building the noted Palazzo Farnese in Rome. It was he who started building the Villa Farnese at Caprarola but building was stopped when he became Pope (Paul III) in 1534. He had a successful reign, bringing in various reforms to the church during the Counter Reformation, instituting the Council of Trent, and achieving many positive things in the church. However, he favoured his family and it is to him that we owe the word ‘nepotism’. The word ‘nipote’ in Italian can mean nephew, niece or grandchild. Pope Paul appointed two of his grandsons as cardinals, one of them also called Alessandro who was only 14 years old at the time. It was Alessandro the younger, a man of great culture and a patron of the arts, who commissioned the architect Vignola to complete the Villa at Caprarola in 1559.

The villa has a pentagonal shape with a circular courtyard in the centre and a wide stair case on one side (wide enough to accomodate a horse) going up five floors. The photos below are just a taste as the frescoes were truly spectacular even though the light was poor by the time we saw them. Click on the link for more pictures and a detailed layout of the castle.

The piano nobile or main floor has large frescoed rooms. Above this are the winter apartments facing west decorated with contemplative scenes and the summer apartments facing east focused on scenes of an active life.

Both the summer and winter apartments lead to a large Rennaisance garden which unfortunately wasn’t at it’s best at this time of year. One crosses a bridge over a moat to go into the garden. Unfortunately, the only plants in flower were a few camellias.

On exiting from the formal garden, one goes through a wood at the end of which is a grand surprise. A beautiful summerhouse with two loggia for dining. Perched on top of a small rise, the approach is lined with cascading fountains and statuary.

As you can see, the fountains had not yet been turned on. The garden must be spectacular a little later in the year and I will have to visit the villa again early in the summer to see them at their best.

Our adventure for that day finished with dinner in a restaurant close to where I live but there were more trips to come which I shall tell you about in my next post.

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Bomarzo Gardens

The Orcus. Caption on Mouth: All Thoughts Fly

My sister and brother-in-law, who are keen gardeners, came to visit me in the last two weeks. They have been to Rome several times and were interested in seeing some of the gardens outside Rome, their first choice being Bomarzo Parco dei Mostri (Park of the Monsters). This is a weird and unusual garden filled with giant rocks carved into unusual and sometimes scary statues. The garden was commissioned by Prince Pier Francesco Orsini in 1552 whose castle is in the adjoining medieval town of Bomarzo. This became a passion of his after the death of his young wife Giulia Farnese (not the lover of Pope Alessandro VI, Roderigo Borgia, but a relative). Built in the Mannerist style which is to say a sort of 16th century Surrealism, it is not designed to please but to astonish. It was designed by Pirro Ligorio who also designed the gardens of the Villa D’Este at Tivoli. The statues are of monsters and mythical figures many with enigmatic captions written on them.

Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau amongst others found the statues fascinating and the gardens have been featured in movies and referred to in poems. Inside the Orcus above, there is a small stone table at which one could sit and have lunch. Supposedly, a whisper in this space can be heard on the steps. I didn’t know that when we were there so couldn’t check it out.

There is a small leaning house at one end of the garden which makes you feel quite dizzy when you go into it. Hard to know why the prince would have wanted such a thing as it is two stories high with several rooms all on an incline so you feel like you are going to fall.

At one of the spots close to the beginning of the garden is a small bench with an large inscription on the wall behind it which you can read below. I was so busy trying to decipher the text that I forgot to take a picture of the whole area but the text sort of gives an insight into the mind of the Prince. He was a ‘condottiere’ a warlord/mercenary who made his fortune travelling with various armies. Perhaps following the death of his best friend in a war, and then the sudden death of his wife soon after, he had no desire to travel but wanted his garden to reflect the diversity of the world.

Voi che pel mondo gite errando, vaghi
di vedere maraviglie alte e stupende
venite qua, dove son faccie horrende,
elefanti, leoni, orsi, orchi e draghi.
You who travel the world to see its wonders, come here where you will find horrible faces, elephants, lions, bears, ogres and dragons.

I guess the prince must have come to terms with the grief for his wife as after about 20 years he had a beautiful temple constructed in her memory.

The garden fell into disrepair and was left abandoned until the 1950s when Angelica and Giovanni Bettini restored it. The temple was closed when we went there but we could see photographs of the Bettinis in niches in the wall so perhaps their remains have been placed there.

This was not the end of our adventure that day, but more about that in another post.

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St. Peter’s Tomb

St. Peter’s Tomb

I was very fortunate last week to be invited on a guided tour to see the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica. A friend of mine had a special invitation from her bank to join a private tour and she invited me to accompany her.

I had always wanted to visit the necropolis underground as I knew that it was vast and not only contained the remains of St. Peter but had once been a burial ground and cemetery for both Christians and pagans. At one time, it was forbidden to bury bodies within the walls of the city and the Vatican is just outside the walls so it was a convenient location.

We started our tour inside the basilica. The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the structure. Just under the dome is the Baldacchino built by Bernini. Sadly, the four bronze columns were made from the bronze stripped from inside the Pantheon. It is monumental with a height akin to a seven storey building and occupies a very special spot as it stands directly above the tomb of St. Peter. We were told a lot about the monuments and decoration within the basilica. Even though I have been inside the basilica several times, I found out things that I had no idea about.

Our guide explained that during Roman times, the area around St. Peter’s was a hill called Monte Vaticano. It was countryside and the Emperor Caligula and his mother Agrippina had villas there. Nero had his race track (Circo) there as well. The Egyptian obelisk which now stands in the Piazza in front of the basilica, was once in the Circo Nero. Subsequently, after the decline of the Roman Empire, it became a burial ground first for early Christians and Peter was crucified and buried on the site. In the 3rd century AD, the Emperor Constantine legalized christianity and decided to build a church above the remains of St. Peter.

Our next stop was a small museum at the side of the basilica where we were shown a model of the original church which had a large cloister in front just behind the tower and a small church at the back where the altar was placed above the reputed remains of St. Peter. Since it was a hill and in order to create a flat surface for the church, earth was moved from the back to the front thus covering the cemetery and burial grounds.

There were various artifacts from the original church, carved stone slabs, columns and beautiful mosaics including the one showing the Emperor Constantine with the church in his hands.

Next we returned to the Baldacchino and went down the steps leading to the space below. Underneath the floor of the basilica are two levels as you can see in the drawing below. The one immediately under contains the tombs of the various Popes but below that again is where the original cemetery and burial ground was situated.

This area is lined with sarcophagi and rooms with burial niches. Only the rich could afford to have a room with niches for the whole extended family. Each room has a small staircase where the family would come and sit, on the day of the dead, and have a meal with their departed family.

According to belief, the remains of St. Peter were just wrapped in a shroud and buried. The Emperor Constantine had a marble tomb constructed and the remains were moved into it. This tomb is what lies below the present Baldacchino and the one in the original church. A small sumptious chapel has been built next to the tomb which is now behind a golden screen as you can see in the photo at the top. The altar below has a panel of the most beautiful bright green marble I have ever seen. Apparently, an analysis was carried out on the remains within the tomb and they are consistent with a sturdy man in his 60s which is around the age St. Peter would have been when he was crucified. Incidentally, he was crucified upside down as he didn’t feel worthy to be crucified as Christ was.

Residenza Paolo IV

The tour took over two hours as we had a very knowledgeable guide who gave us loads of information. By the time we were done, we were hungry and needed refreshment. This event had been organized by a private bank and in appropriate style, they took us to a residence next to St. Peter’s where there was a beautiful terrace and dining room overlooking the Bernini statues surrounding the Piazza with the dome of St. Peter’s in the background. We started out with drinks and appetizers on the terrace, it was a lovely sunny day. Then there was a three course lunch with wine. It was an amazing experience and I can’t believe I had the good fortune to be invited on this tour. Thank you Nicoletta.

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Nothing Much

I know I have featured the above flowering mimosa in previous years but Icouldnt resist another picture. January was a wet and horrible month here. It rained almost every day without fail which is unusual in Rome. It does rain in the winter but usually for a day or two and then the sun comes out. Last week, it stopped raining, the sun came out and this wonderful sight is to be seen on the way to the market. It uplifts my spirits everytime I see it and it`s worth the slight detour.

Life continues on in what might seem a mundane way except that I find it all interesting for the most part. I am teaching English in a small office which is part of an international network whose official language of communication is English. The needs and abilities of my students are all different and I do individual lessons but I don`t have a syllabus to cover and exams to set so it`s quite laid back.

Once a week I go to my flute lesson. Its a long journey and takes up a whole afternoon but I like my teacher so I don`t mind. I have to take the train from where I live to an area called Ostiense where I catch another train. There is a pyramid in Ostiense which was built in 12BC by a Roman nobleman called Caius Cestius. It was the fashion for things Egyptian at that time on account of Mark Anthony`s involvement with Cleopatra.
The pyramid is incorporated into the Aurelian walls so you see the fortifications alongside. It rises up between the walls and never fails to amaze me by its presence.

My teacher, Alessandra, lives on the coast just beyond Ostia. She lives in an apartment on the top of her building and has a large terrace outside her music room. As I struggle to get a decent sound out of my flute, we see the ocean and little birds hopping around outside. Last week, I persuaded Alessandra to hold the flute while I took a picture as it was a lovely day and I thought of putting in a picture in my next post. I had to promise not to show her in person as she was worried about not being properly attired! She is a professional musician who plays in several orchestras in Rome and just gives a few lessons on the side to supplement her income. Life is hard for musicians in Italy as there are no positions that offer any security.
I am very lucky to have her as a teacher and I think she just took me on as a favour to her friend, a singing teacher who sings in my choir. I got my job teaching English through another choir member who was looking for an English teacher to teach in her husband`s office. Life works in strange ways.

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