Just how enchanting is the historic quarter of Brussels?

Belgium’s capital old town is enchanting…

Its second language is French. A river called Senne flows through. The older part of the city is graced with classic Haussmann-style architecture. An unmistakable French influence is in the air. You’re having a good feeling about Brussels. And you haven’t even set foot into the historic quarter yet!

Acclimatisation in the city

Start slow with Place Brouckere. The Ansbach monument, a granite obelisk with the gilt bronze figure of St Michael over a fountain base, is possibly the sole reminder of the square’s glorious past. Glitzy hub for evening entertainment to the flashy neon-lit wonderland of the 20th century to tragic decline in 1960s and 70s…that’s when middle classes abandoned the city centre for more modern suburbs. A few striking Flemish façades here and there, including the multiplex UGC De Brouckère, which retains some glorious golden Art Deco bas-reliefs. Refurbishment plans are on…maybe glory days will return for De Brouckère.

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Head for the only real institution that still remains. The opulent Hotel Metropole…its old-world decor and atmosphere draws hundreds of locals and tourists everyday. Make it your home for the next few days. Open for business since 1895, the 19th-century luxury property is a unique blend of ornate Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture…think sumptuous decor, marble walls, coffered ceiling, stained-glass back windows, glittering chandeliers. A magnificent conventionally-styled long reception desk, heavy brass keys, an art-deco original lift with sliding iron grill doors, and a colourful, Venetian Baroque room with restored furniture. The indulgent café and bar with sink-in expensive leather chairs would have to wait its turn. Brussels is calling.

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A few steps from the hotel entrance on your right, turn into the arcade with a beautiful glazed roof and Baroque statues, leading to the Rue Neuve, the main shopping drag of Brussels. The shopping arcade is a 19th-century fad that endures: only three of the original ten survive today – the other two being Royal St Hubert Arcade and Bortier Arcade. Eye the handful of luxury shops, including an oyster bar, gourmet chocolatier Neuhaus, perfumeries, cutlery shops and a tobacco store decorated with charming caryatids and lavish curves. At Rue Neuve, the pedestrian-only high-fashion street, which witnesses daily footfalls of over 40,000, a few hours of retail indulgence is simply unavoidable.

First glimpse of the Grand Palace

The mood is set by the time you reach the Rue de Beurre (‘butter street’). Gourmande and chocolatiers are lined up where exclusive butter shops used to hold fort once. Almost suddenly, without preparation, you stumble onto the corner edge of a large, stunning square at the end of the narrow alley. The Grand Place, is surrounded on all sides with tall Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque facades of elaborately crafted guild houses. Time has turned back four centuries in a microsecond! Hold that corner position for a few seconds to gawp at Europe’s most perfectly preserved, most picturesque, most ornate, most theatrical medieval square. Then move into the centre for a 360 degree view of the ensemble. Finally, inch closer to each side for the close-ups. Each view a masterpiece.

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Monumental statement of the Town Hall

The entire southwest side is dominated by the Hotel de Ville, the Town Hall which still functions as a civic building. What a monumental, glorious Gothic statement of Brussels’s medieval prestige! Crane your neck across the 96-meter towering spire. It survives intact from the early 1400s, despite large-scale bombing by French emperor Louis XIV’s army. Details then. A massive wooden gateway studded with statues of prophets and priests. Hundreds of statues of nobles, saints and allegorical figures. Rows and rows of narrow windows, so perfectly aligned. And a 5-metre statue of Archangel Saint Michael, patron of Brussels at the very top. Had the architect really jumped to his death realising that the building was not centred?

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History peeks through guild houses

Those are 17th-century guild houses lining the rest of the square. Ornate Italian Baroque shines through the neo-classical facades. A rich variety of shapes, forms and designs. No monumentality, just a simplicity and unity of design…like intricate lace work…ornamental gables, medieval banners, gold-filigreed rooftop sculptures, statues of patron saints. Rays of the sun peek from scanty clouds behind the Town Hall. Some buildings bathe in mellow shadows, while on others, gold glints sharply. An endearing timelessness…and a surprising harmony, despite the uneven heights and slight crookedness of the facades.

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Here’s a little secret. All original wooden structures on this cobblestone square have been superbly restored in stone, after having been razed to the ground by the French bombardment of 1695! The square’s history goes back to the medieval times when Brussels thrived as one of Europe’s main centres of industry and traders controlled politics and commerce. If the busts of 19 dukes on the pilasters of the House of the Dukes of Brabant could speak, they would tell stories of the famed stock exchange which was housed here.

A symbolic gold swan adorns the doorway of the former Butchers’ Guild, now converted into a refined restaurant La Maison du Cygne, where Karl Max and Frederic Engels met and voiced their progressive thoughts. There are nautical images over the Boatmens’ Guild House, medallions of Roman emperors on the Archers’ Guild House, and a bust of St. Barbara, the patroness of tailors, above the doorway of the Tailors guild house (now a deluxe lace store). Just for fun…try locating the Brewers’, Carpenters’ and Millers’ Guilds too.

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History peeks from every inch…how deep do you want to dive? Victor Hugo had taken refuge at the Painters’ Guild House, during his exile from France. For museum lovers, there’s the Musee de la Ville, once the residence of the ruling Spanish monarchs. Besides 16th-century paintings and tapestries, it holds over 650 tiny costumes of the famous Belgian icon, Manneken Pis. Interest piqued?

Cafes are lodged within opulent wood-beamed interiors of old guild houses; and guests sit at upper-floor windows affording some of the best views in Europe. These bistros have day-long service….coffee, croissants, waffles and cakes in mornings, fresh mussels and beer for lunch, and amazing seafood at night. Fancy chocolate shops like Neuhaus and Godiva compel chocoholics with gourmet offerings. Even the mandatory Starbucks does not stick out like a sore thumb…the atmosphere is too overpowering for anything to even stake a claim to equal prominence.

And the show-stopping moment

Think you had an ideal day? Then come back at night for a grand finale. The heritage buildings in the square are bathed in psychedelic coloured lights. Reds, purples, blues, greens and oranges dance off the dark cobbled floor. Crowds mill, many just standing around and taking pictures of the spectacle. Dinner under the stars here? Undeniably mandatory!

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Sitting at the outside terrace of El Greco, as you relish your delicious platter of gyro meat, chicken souvlaki, and soutzoukaki, imagine the Grand Place in August. Ablaze with hundreds of colours, fragrances and intricate design of the 75 meters long, 24 meters wide flower carpet of 600,0000 begonias from Ghent. That most-photographed Brussels vista has been a show-stopping tradition, ever since 1971. 

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Its not August, but its even more magical, because you’re here, savouring Greek delicacies in one of the most famous squares in all Europe. Under the clear midnight blue sky, this will go down memory lane as the show-stopping moment in Brussels. I promise.

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Belgium’s capital old town is enchanting #brussels #grand place #medieval square #historic town #guild houses #historic quarter

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This is what your day trip to Sintra Cascais should look like

Discovering the best of Sintra Cascais…

145 square kilometres of a UNESCO World Heritage Site brimming with natural wonders and historic treasures. Hidden sandy bays, rugged coastline, towering cliffs, thick forests and shimmering lakes. Fairy palaces, exotic architecture and paradise gardens. All within 30 km of Portugal’s capital city. Lisbon itinerary minus Sintra-Cascais Natural Park? No-can-do!

Pena Palace and Park: Crowning glory of Sintra

Grasp the big picture: Sintra town. Summer residence of Portuguese royalty for six centuries. With a name inspired by the Roman goddess of nature. Home to one of the world’s dreamiest, most flamboyant of palaces. Converted from a defunct monastery in the 19th century by Don Fernando II, king consort to Queen Dona Maria II….chapel, cloister, dome and all. UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. History quotient high. Fantasy quotient super high. Expectation level sky high!

Give in to the obligatory: Hilltop palace above a thickly forested landscape, pretty town below. Parapets, turrets, towers, drawbridge…all the usual suspects. A surprisingly harmonious blend of Neo-Gothic, Manueline, Islamic and Renaissance architectural styles. Endless rooms with opulent interiors. And of course, the piece de resistance…a bold colour riot of yellow, red, and purple highlighting three distinct wings.

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Gun for the top takeaway: Short coach ride to the palace or walk up the winding road? No brainer, specially if you’re blessed with a cloudless blue sky. Let your feet be your guide…your heart will do the rest. Encased in the thick folds of the forested grounds of Parque da Pena. Dwarfed in the presence of the tall trees kissing the skies. Sensing the velvety softness of the moss hugging the trunks. Under the shadow of the highest peaks of the Serre de Sintra, through the 200 hectares labyrinth dotted with walking paths, fountains and lakes. No ancient forest this, its an elaborately landscaped magical woodland. Romance has a new destination.

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Monserrate Park and Palace: Mansion extraordinaire

Grasp the big picture: 16th century chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Monserrate changes hands from one influential family after another till a neo-Gothic palace is built over the chapel ruins and finally reconstructed into a fabulous mansion for the family of Sir Francis Cook, Viscount of Monserrate and textile millionaire. 2,000 men laboured for five years to make this fantasy come to life.

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Give in to the obligatory: Portuguese Romanticism at its best…the blend of Victorian, Italian and Indo-Persian sensibilities makes an unforgettable impression. Pastel pink hues of the exterior complement the intricately-worked facade. Exotic and plant motifs adorn the interior. Pointed arches and marble columns add elegance. Beautiful entry corridor and lavish rooms makes bold statements. A giant staircase spirals towards the sky under an extravagant dome. In the library, a ceiling painted to mimic carved wood takes your breath away.

Gun for the top takeaway: At 350 acres, its virtually impossible to explore this magnificent estate overflowing with waterfalls, lily ponds and over 3,000 exotic plant species, from across the world. In what is considered one of the most diverse botanical gardens in Portugal, plants are arranged based on their geographical origin…from New Zealand red flowering trees to Mexican cactus…each has a home here. Traverse the steep slopes of the densely vegetated paths and bask in the glory of the gorgeous gardens.

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Adraga Beach: Secret hideaway to escape the crowds   

Grasp the big picture: Winding, narrow, slow road through the deep green forest. Cedars, pines and gumtrees looming large. Unprocessed raw wonders on offer at every gentle curve. Hide-and-seek glimpses of elegant chapels and stately mansions. Lush mountain valleys below and wooded hillsides above. Windows rolled down, hair in disarray, eyes wide open…hungrily drinking in the infinity. Charms of rural Portugal, rich countryside, quiet villages, two enormous hills…and finally, the deep blue of the sea.

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Give in to the obligatory: Lunch at a beachside restaurant. Correction. The only beachside restaurant on Adraga. And the ultimate luxury? You have it all to yourself! Except for the servers. And the aquarium with live king prawns…shop for your choice before they’re tossed into the hot pan. Table facing the picture windows. View to kill for. Divine food. Fresh as the sea outside. You could pitch a tent in the sand and stay over, if that was a possibility. This is the life…

Gun for the top takeaway: Happy stomach? Now time to feed the soul. On to the golden beach. Lacy, frilly waves. Silky soft sands. Towards that rocky formation resembling an elephant trunk. Thank you, Lady Luck for this unexpected treasure.

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Cabo da Roca: Where the land ends

Grasp the big picture: 16th century Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes was right when he described Cabo da Roca as the place where ‘the land ends and the sea begins’. Here, at the western-most edge of Europe, where the North Atlantic stretches endlessly into the horizon…that is the universal thought crossing every visitor’s mind. There’s a whole world behind and a whole world ahead, across those fathomless waters. Tipping point, so to say! Just being there is an event in itself.

Give in to the obligatory: Beaches are beaches, but coastal cliffs and something else. And as coastal cliffs go, this one takes the cake. A rendezvous with the dramatic, vertigo-inducing verticality is in order…and that translates to 100 meters above sea level! Windswept coastal walk along the weather-beaten wooden fences, with a lovely red lighthouse for a spot of vibrance. Frothy waves breaking the blue-green of the ocean. An isolated sail boat dotting the silvery surface. A spectacle of nature to lock in your memory forever.

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Gun for the top takeaway: Chances are…an impromptu trail is what your heart desires. Wander off into the rugged landscape…trail the picturesque…blend into the scenic. Succulents claiming the land for miles. Habitat scattering the distant hills. Its just you…your gypsy soul, and the clear blue skies for company.

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A phenomenal sundowner…

For the happiest of endings, drive down N247 to the fishing port of Cascais on the Estoril coast for ceaseless ocean-gaping. Stop to marvel at the collapsed cave, now famously flaunted as Boca de Inferno (Hell’s mouth) before parking at Portuguese Riviera of Cascais. Laze away the evening at the waterfront boulevard, admiring the typical black-white Calcada paving. 19th-century King Luís I had a summer residence here…aristocracy still oozes from the British, French Dutch styled houses and the chic restaurants. Top tip…drive on to catch the metallic glow of a phenomenal sunset, made sensational by the image of surfers tackling the Atlantic waves. Epic!

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Discovering the best of Sintra Cascais in a daytrip from Lisbon #penapalace #monserrate #cabodaroca #adraga #lisbon daytrip #portugal

This is what you can do in the historic centre of Munich

Munich, Germany’s secret capital city…

Skipping Bavaria while in Germany should actually be illegal! It is literally a crime…depriving yourself of the splendours you could encounter while travelling south by train to Munich. No exaggeration…that image of Germany will be burnt onto your memory wall forever. Nature flaunts its full glory through endlessly luscious grass-carpeted meadows and forests so thick, they close in upon the train tracks at some points. Tunnel after tunnel zip past, and you zigzag over the landscape crossing one hill after the other. Hypnotised, head turned towards the constant cinemascope, your eyes scan the landscape without a break, thirsty for more. Could the introduction to Germany’s secret capital city be any more enticing?

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Pick Cortiina Hotel on Ledererstrasse for its sleek minimalist interiors and central location within a stone’s throw of the old town (Alstadt). Cozy up in front of the hip, electric fireplace before you tackle the grey skies and a possible downpour. Munich is waiting!

Step into the past

Pause under the austere stone tower of the gothic Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall) and reflect on its third restoration after two major destructions, first from lighting and then from war. Not a stone out of place! Gloat at the sunrise-washed vision of the ancient St Peters Church before you take a few steps through this historic gateway, and you are in Marienplatz, the heart of the medieval walled city of Munich since 1158. Heritage buildings mix harmoniously with modern day architecture. The ancient Marienpillar column adorned by a gold-plated statue of Mary reminds that the small, irregular shaped piazza still continues to be the pulsing centre of the old city. Spend a few hours soaking in the peace…till the outdoor cafes open and buzzing throngs alter the scene. 

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Take time to study the indisputable star of this space…the New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus). Its 300-feet long Gothic-style facade, graced with ornate stone ornamentation, hundreds of statues, turrets, arches and a 260-foot tower rising to the skies, declares it a work of art. The solemn grey exterior is unexpectedly softened by bunches of pink flowers bursting from its balconies. What’s even better? The tower houses Europe’s largest, most famous Glockenspiel, where 32 life-size dukes, ladies and knights, dance around, telling the story of a royal wedding from the 16th century to the tune of 42 chiming bells everyday. The dance of the figurines synchronised with the musical chiming bells makes for a pretty unusual concert, at 11am, 12pm and 5pm. (Read my post here) Everything so painstakingly re-created! Only now, 65 years after the last bombs had fallen, are the restorations finally being wrapped up. That thought alone, is enough to make you stare a few seconds longer.

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Say a little prayer

Beyond and above, catch the familiar glimpse of twin green onion domes of the Frauenkirche, the city’s iconic church. The twin domes, said to be inspired by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, are different from their Russian cousins…which are usually gold plated or colored in beautiful designs. Here the domes are simple half-rounds in green copper, each decorated with a small gold globe on top. Apparently, domes represented the Holy Roman Empire and are found on Catholic churches all over Southern Germany. Divergent thinking? Maybe the sensual curves of the domes are a symbolic celebration of life after a series of invasions, fires, plagues and wars?

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Classic Gothic style and plain brick simplicity of Frauenkirche’s facade is a contrast to the whitewashed beauty inside. Look for an especially interesting element…the devil’s footprint by the door. Legend has it that the devil stamped his foot in rage when coming into the church to steal souls. Take a seat and reflect on the lovely, delicate decorative lamps suspended from the ceiling. Octagonal pillars create the illusion of white walls on on either side of the 31-metre long nave. Large, yet surprisingly intimate. Most of this was destroyed during World War II, except the towers, and the rest has been gloriously restored. Even today, the stature of the Frauenkirche spires continues to be highest…no building in Munich can be taller!

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Shop till you drop

Move east from Marienplatz onto the broad boulevard of Kaufingerstrasse that leads to Karlsplatz, where the medieval city gate Karlstor stands. This is Munich’s busiest shopping area, filled with well-known department stores, international chains as well as smaller shops selling umbrellas, gloves, candles and wood carvings. Criss-crossing the main street run passages, alleyways, arcades and courtyards with exclusive boutiques with exquisite German crafts made of porcelain. Dissolve into some mindful and some mindless retail therapy.

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Store windows display traditional costumes like Dirndl and Lederhosen…very popular buys during Oktoberfest. Analyse the three separate pieces of the Dirndl: dress (das Kleid), blouse (die Bluse) and purely decorative apron (die Schurze). Women sport a short hiking boots in light brown suede with thick, folded knit socks. Men wear Lederhosen (or leather pants), which are either shorts or three quarter length pants, with by a special cotton shirt, long knit socks and mountain-climbing boots. Visualise hordes of men and women wearing traditional attire, beer mugs in their hands, singing and dancing all over the place. What frenzy and merrymaking!

The entire area comes alive at night, the lights adding a new sparkle to the aristocratic buildings, compelling you to linger on like kids unwilling to go home after a day at Disneyland. At Marienplatz, the Neues Rathaus makes for a radiant centrepiece washed in golden glow against the electric blue of the sky above. Timeless.

Eat, drink and be merry

Indulge in a necessary currywurst snack and a much-needed coffee break with gingerbread cookies. Pay homage to Dallmayr, the oldest luxury delicatessen in Munich established in 1700, just behind New Town Hall. Gape over the exquisite Bavarian and international gourmet goodies that attract 1.5 million visitors every year. Prep up your tastebuds with sights of freshly prepared delicatessen dishes, to delectable desserts, fine wines, exquisite chocolate, and even live crayfish swimming in a fountain. And when hunger pangs call, extract yourself from the stupor and start a trek in search of Bavarian food.

Check out nightlife in nearby Platzl, a little square which used to be a small market place back in time. Nowadays its is a place of great contrasts…traditional architecture, a Michelin Star restaurant, souvenir shops, a Hard Rock Café and the historical beer hall, HofBrauhaus, where Hitler gave his first speech to his Nazi Party. Over a hearty Eintopf, a one-pot meal made of vegetables, potatoes or pulses and meat, let your mind wander to the past when Irish Benedict monks founded Munchen at Marienplatz.

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Little did they know that someday, their tradition of brewing beer would grow into the world’s biggest funfair, the 16-day long Oktoberfest. Of course, the credit for the tradition actually goes to King Ludwig I. Had he not invited the citizens to celebrate his wedding to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in October 1810, beer may not have morphed into Germany’s national passion. In fact, here in Bavaria, beer is officially considered to be a food. So, have you eaten yet?

 

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Why you should not miss Munich, Germany’s secret capital city #bavaria #munich #historic centre #medieval city

Why you need to see this stone village in French Provence?

Provencal village of Les Baux-de-Provence…

Its the heart of the rustic Luberon valley of French Provence, 15 km from Arles and 25 km from Avignon. Purple lavender, green herbs and black truffle color the landscape. One of the million scenic roads leads to a rocky outcrop under a shocking blue sky. Where the postcard-pretty village of Les Baux-de-Provence is perched on a hilltop, elegantly dressed in shades of classic cream. Forget the etymology (its named the bauxite found there). This is one of ‘the most beautiful’ of 160 Provencal villages listed by the Plus Beaux Villages de France Association. See and believe!

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The most incredible sights in the historic heart of Istanbul

A walking tour in Sultanahmet, Istanbul…

Hypnotic first glimpse of a one-of-a-kind city uniting the ‘chalk-and-cheese’ divergent continents of Europe and Asia. Spectacular skyline of cascading grey-blue domes and pencil-thin minarets of nearly 3,000 mosques. And the electric blue of the rough Bosphorus waters speckled with gliding seagulls. Born as Byzantium under Greek ruler Byzas (7th-century BC), renamed Constantinople by Roman Emperor Constantine for 1,100 years and reincarnated as seat of Ottoman Sultans’ mighty Muslim empire for 400 years…the culture cauldron in Turkey’s star city has enriched multifold with each glorious era in history. Melting pot, indeed!

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The most wonderful things that Belgium is known for?

Comics, waffles and chocolates of Belgium…

You knew that Johnny Depp is not the star of the 2017 remake of the classical movie ‘Murder on the Orient Express’…its Kenneth Branagh as the famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot. But did you know that Agatha Christie’s fictional detective was inspired by a real-life Belgian policeman, Jacques Hornais? For Christie whodunit fans like me, Belgium is (and will always be) synonymous with Poirot. As will be comics, waffles and chocolates. On the trail of other wonderful things in Belgium’s capital, Brussels…

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Explore gems in the most famous boulevard of Vienna

Resplendence of the Ringstrasse in Vienna…

Sunlight dazzles on the calm waters of the Danube flowing through the city’s suburbs. You can almost hear the strains of the most famous waltz ever written, ‘The Blue Danube’ by Strauss. Well, hardly a waltz, more like Austria’s second national anthem. The aura of Europe’s cultural hub unveils itself gradually through broad boulevards, aristocratic architecture, glorious greenery and luxury hotels housed in old palaces. Missing your gown and tux?

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