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The “Mini Circuit”

map

About half an hour south of Areopolis lies a collection of Niklian villages that can be explored as a circuit, offering a detour from the main Mani “loop” or as an addition to a trip to Vathia/ Tainaron. The area is dominated by a steep escarpment Cavo Grosso (Great Cape) that rises to the east from a flat plain that would once have offered relatively good agricultural land. At the very least, a 20-minute detour, simply driving through the tower house villages to soak up the unique Deep Mani atmosphere, is well worth it. Alternatively, a full day could be spent here, really exploring the area, including walking out onto the Tigani peninsula or up on to the Cavo Grosso escarpment, as well as visiting the best of the area’s numerous churches. There are two possible lunch/dinner opportunities at picturesque Gerolimenas or the smaller and slightly eerie Mezapos. Both of these places also offer swimming possibilities. For an overnight stay, Gerolimenas now has several seaside hotels or, for a night in the middle of it all, the restored Tsitsiris Castle in Stavri gives the chance to stay in a tower. As the map illustrates there is a labyrinth of roads running across the plain and so there is no one standard route through the villages – exploration is key. Whatever your route, there are numerous places of interest to consider, noted here from north to south.

Agios Georgios

The first possible turning into the Mini Circuit comes once you have passed the turn to Erimos and come to a ‘crossroads’ with Mina to your left and Agios Georgios and Mezapos to your right. Agios Georgios is a microcosm of a typical Mesa Mani settlement – a small group of defensively built houses surround a taller war tower for additional protection with the church outside on the road towards Mezapos. The ruined, single-apse megalithic church with a tikles roof is on your left as you leave the village. This is the Byzantine church of Agios Georgios and must have given its name to the hamlet. It is thought to be 13th century and is looking its age because there is a big hole in the ceiling and not much left inside. The only fresco worthy of the name is on the left templon wall inside the sanctuary. This shows St. Michael dressed like a Byzantine soldier and an unidentified female saint.

Mezapos

Having passed through Agios Georgios first, the final bend leading into Mezapos sees the road forking – left takes you into the heart of the village where there is a taverna, right drops steeply down and bends round to a small pebbly cove. As you face the sea at the cove, up to your left in the rocks are several graves that are probably Homeric. Indeed, Tim Severin, in reconstructing the route Odysseus took from Troy back to Ithaca, identified Mezapos as the possible home of the Laestrygonians, unpleasant giants who pelted Odysseus’ fleet with rocks, sinking eleven ships. It is also thought to be the location of Homer’s Messe which according to the Iliad sent ships to Troy. The deep harbour was used in later times by pirates and the infamous Sassaris clan from Mezapos were a constant thorn in the Mavromichalis domination of the area. Later the harbour served as a weekly stopping off point for the ferry from Piraeus.

The road through the village is now a metal road all the way up to Stavri. If you are prepared to walk on such surfaces (and dodge the dogs who always seem to congregate there) there is a pleasant circular walk from Mezapos up to the renowned Episkopi church (pictured on the front cover) and back to Mezapos on paths running through the olives. See the walking section.

Heading towards Stavri by car you will get a view of Episkopi up on your left once you have passed another 12th century church down on your right.

Vlacherna

To get down to the church and ruined tower it is best to leave the car on the main road and walk the short distance. Named after the Virgin of Vlachernae in Constantinople, this 12th century church is always open – a piece of string keeps the door closed tight – though there is now little left in terms of internal paintings. What is just about discernible is a John the Baptist on the templon and there is a razing of Lazarus. Greehhalgh refers to it as the poets’ church – it’s easy to see why from its location if you give it a brief visit.

Continuing along the main road to Stavri another church appears on the hill to your left.

Episkopi

This beautiful 12th century church was restored in the 1980s and houses some of the best wall paintings in Mesa Mani. However, to get inside requires some effort – the key holder, Dimitris Kolokouris lives in Pyrgos Dirou and so needs to be contacted in advance to arrange a viewing (phone 27330 52953). Dimitris does not speak English and in any case his role is to keep the church secure, not to act as a guide. If you do use his services, a tip of some kind would be appropriate. If this seems too difficult, the church’s location is wonderful anyway. It sits in a peaceful spot with great views over Tigani and so is worth visiting even if you do not get inside. It is possible to get there by car by heading through another village called Agios Georgios or Agiorgis and on to the tiny hamlet of Katagiorgis. Turn left between two tower houses, park the car and follow the stone path for 5 minutes. If you do manage to get inside there are a few things to watch out for.

The tall octagonal cupola is supported inside by buttresses behind the templon and two columns with old Ionic capitals in the nave. There is some fine carved marble on the tie beams, the lip of the dome and the small arch above the doorway leading into the bema. The frescos of the Virgin and Christ which flank this doorway are 18th century, as is the Virgin Platytera in the apse above the altar, but the remaining frescos adorning all the walls are 12th century and in the main, reasonably well preserved. They include: the Mandilion and Holy Tile, – Christ’s face imprinted on the scarf on his way to the crucifixion and then transferred to the tile – which were used to rebut the arguments of iconoclasm; excerpts from the life and martyrdom of St George; excerpts from the life of Christ and hosts of Saints and Archangels. The west door of the church leads into the narthex where the congregation were sharply reminded of the fate that awaits those who fall by the wayside with graphic depictions of snakes writhing around the naked bodies of two red-headed ‘fallen’ women, hideous grinning faces gnashing their teeth and heads being consumed by worms and other scenes from the Last Judgement.

After Episkopi, back on the Mezapos-Stavri road where the road bears left, a much older church in a bad state of collapse appears, again on the left. Agios Procopius very probably dates from the 9th century as inside the church has no discernable wall paintings but rather faint symbols where the frescos should be- this tells us the church was influenced by the iconoclastic period, 711- 843, which banned the portrayal of human figures in wall paintings and so internal decoration was limited merely to geometric shapes. Continuing along the road will bring you to a T-junction – left into Stavri and right down to the Tigani peninsula.

Gardenitsa

The second turning off the main road into the Mini Circuit brings you to the village of Gardenitsa where there are two more churches worth seeing. Ignore the sign for Pano Gardenitsa and continue a little further and turn right at the sign for Kato Gardenitsa, less than a kilometre before you come to Kita. A concrete road takes you into the village where you reach a T-junction. Look to your right and you will see the 11th Century church of Agios Sotiras (St. Saviour) on your right, with a ruined tower nearby. It is a domed cruciform church with three apses – the one in the centre is a pentagon and the other two are semi-hexagonal. The drum of the cupola has ornate arches on each facet and inscribed columns on the angles of the octagon. It has a domed outer narthex or entrance porch supported on arches, which are in turn supported by marble pillars. This feature is thought to be a 12th century addition. The arches of the outer narthex are decorated with dentil-course brick bands, as are other parts of the exterior of the church. The doorway has some rather crude carved marble crosses and designs which were painted at one time. The family who live across the road in a modern, flat-roofed house holds the key to this church and they are usually quite willing to come across and let you in. The interior is disappointing because much of it has been whitewashed. There are however some frescos and fragments remaining, especially in the prothesis and diakonikon.

The other notable church in Gardenitsa is Agios Petros and to reach it drive past the T-junction and continue on the concrete road until you reach another T-junction. Turn left here and follow the track until it peters out by a restored tower with a large stonewall enclosing a courtyard. You have to park here and continue along the somewhat thorny track running due south and you can see the tikles (slate tiles) of the roof of the church just above the olive trees about three hundred metres away. Agios Petros is a single-apse, barrel-vaulted church that has not been positively dated but is thought to be 12th century. The outside is very plain except for a bricked-up doorway in the south wall with a marble lintel inscribed with a crudely carved cross – above which is a tympanum that shelters a very large mud-built wasp nest. The plain exterior of the church conceals a wonderful collection of frescos that are thought to be 13th century. Some are damaged or destroyed but the remainder are well worth the thorny walk to see. As you enter the church, an arch supporting the vaulted roof delineates a small narthex. A second arch separates the naos from the sanctuary and you can plainly see that a templon used to be erected here but has been totally destroyed and in fact, the broken fragments of carved marble are stacked against the walls. An additional feature of the church is that the single apse has two recesses with conches depicting Agia Paraskevi on the left and the Archangel Michael on the right. Below the conches are full-length portraits of saints and this is carried forward to the pillar between the recesses where St Zacharias is portrayed. A splendid Archangel Michael is painted on the south wall, in the Naos section between the two arches. On his left are Agia Eleni and Agios Konstantinos supporting a large cross between them and wearing crowns and equally lavish robes. On the curve of the ceiling on the opposite wall is the Nativity. A semi-circular medallion shows the right hand of God blessing the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes below, with the star of Bethlehem between them. The manger is attended by angels while the head of a goat and a mule or horse are peering into the cradle. The Virgin Mary is to the right of the scene, enclosed in a ‘lozenge’ while Joseph is shown directly below the manger. The two men on Joseph’s right are the shepherds looking after the sheep or goats that are scattered around in the scene.

Inside the door on the north wall, just above three medallions of Saints, is a very ugly, naked figure lying on the ground with his hands tied behind his back and a couple of feet planted on top him. This is all that remains of the scene which depicted Christ’s descent into hell. It is His feet which are shown standing on Satan. Another rather confusing scene is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem combined with the raising of Lazarus shown as one continuous painting. Christ is shown riding a white horse or mule with garments and branches strewn in his path and a small boy in a tree waving a branch and apparently holding a cross. Immediately to the right of this is Christ standing at the entrance to a tomb with two men unwrapping the shroud in which Lazarus has been wrapped.

Stavri

A typical Mani village, full of atmosphere but with not a lot happening in it except that it is home to the Tsitsiris Castle hotel which you will have seen signposted back on the main road. This would be a great base for exploration if you are staying in Mesa Mani. The main part of the building was originally a war tower and the terrace on top of the newer rooms has great views across to the mountains. If you have entered Stavri from the main road and not Mezapos then the hotel appears on your right. To get down to the Tigani peninsula continue past the hotel, maybe having stopped for a cup of mountain tea and keep straight, ignoring all turnings left and right. You will soon pass the road on your right that leads down to Mezapos – keep going straight, past the hamlet of Agia Kyriaki perched above on the right and head on to what is now a dirt road (which may have a gate across it with a sign telling you please to keep it closed to keep the cows in). Park the car where the road ends to begin the walk down to Tigani.

Tigani

Literally translated as ‘frying pan’, it is very obvious how this causeway got its name. As is typical of the Mani, it is unclear exactly what was built or by whom up on the raised escarpment at the far end. The old battlements surrounding the ‘pan’ part of the frying pan clearly suggest a defensive building was placed above, but the common assertion that it was the site of the 13th century Frankish Grand Maina castle of the Villhardouins is by no means irrefutable (see the introduction on castles). Despite this uncertainty it is still worth walking to the site if only to become an expert archaeologist for an hour or so in a fantastic location. What is clear are the foundations of an early Christian basilica – a style of building that died out in the 8th century and during the excavation work that took place in the 1970s, grave offerings were found dating from the 6th century. This substantial building measured 22m x 15m. Greenhalgh believes that its grand size indicates that it was the cathedral for the Byzantine bishopric of Mani recorded from the time of Emperor Leo the Wise (AD 866-912).

It may simply be the case that Tigani has a much older history than was originally thought and that neither the Franks nor the Venetians ever fortified it themselves. The evidence of ‘Cyclopean’ masonry at the south -western corner could date as far back as the 13th century BC and though no pottery has been found to confirm this, it seems likely that the Mezapos area was a power centre during the Greek Bronze Age. Regarding its medieval history, the controversy continues. Greenhalgh was uncommitted, referring to the debate as a “tantalising mystery”, although like him, if you walk up there and consider its position with the harbour of Mezapos close by and the natural defence of the cliffs around the site, it becomes difficult not to imagine it being used defensively over the centuries;

“But whether William’s (Villhardouin) great castle was here or not, it is likely that the two-headed eagle of the house of the Palaeologus fluttered over Tigani and its great church in the thirteenth century, and when the last great era of Byzantium had passed and the Peloponnese became a battleground for Turks and Venetians, it is no less likely that the Lion of St Mark claimed this Maniat Monemvasia for the Republic more than once in the fifteenth century.”

A clear dirt path takes you down on to the ‘handle’. A series of cairns mark the easiest route across the pebbles and rocks up to the site. Set amongst the rocks are a series of stone salt pans. It was here that Leigh Fermor met a mother and daughter collecting sea salt on his travels in the 50s. It is incredible to think that on this stark, barren land, a meagre living was being made (they told him that on a good day they made 6 pence – a clear indication of how poor the area was and indeed, to a certain extent, still is). Once you near the battlement walls the path veers upwards and to the right as you approach them. Watch out for a ‘hoof print’ in the steps as you enter the site – supposedly from when a defeated princess leapt on horseback into the sea to escape capture. From the car to this point will take a leisurely 40 minutes. Once up on the site, the basilica foundations are straight in front of you. The entrance to the church is at the far end as you first approach the curved wall of the apse at the altar end of the building. Good boots are needed for the rocky terrain and be sure to take plenty of water as it always seems a few degrees hotter down on the exposed causeway. Naturally, the walk back is a little tougher!

“Agitria”

If, once you are back at the car, you feel like walking a little further, there is another interesting detour. About 50m before the gate across the road you will see a cairn on your right and the beginning of a path dropping down to a stone water trough. The path is well marked and last year was well cleared by the local council. As it reaches the cliff edge, it winds down and is slightly vertiginous at this point. Before heading down, the game here is to try and spot the purpose of this detour – a 13th century Byzantine church set in a mind-befuddling location. If you fail to locate it, keep going down the path and looking ahead should soon bring the church into view. Again the walk back up to the road is harder going than coming down. It should take around 45 minutes each way. So, if you are planning to visit both Tigani and Agitria you should allow for around 4 hours.

The church of Odigitraea – ‘Our Lady who shows the way’ – abbreviated locally to “Agitria”, is set in an amazing position. Perched on the edge of a sheer drop down to the sea and under steep cliffs behind, it is perhaps the greatest example in Mani of Byzantine religious fervour. You cannot help but wonder how materials were brought here and why it was located in such an isolated spot. It is fairly certain that hermit monks lived in the caves behind the church at one time (as did the salt-collectors Leigh Fermor met). The church is never locked and is well worth a look inside. The church is ‘cruciform’ with a dome from about 1200AD and a narthex added at a later date possibly in the 13th century or slightly earlier. Inside are wonderful carved marble decorations on the column capitals, around the doorways and above the door that separates the naos from the narthex. This door was the original entrance to the church before the narthex was added. The badly damaged frescos are from the 13th and 18th centuries and the most striking is the 13th century depiction of the Archangel Michael in his Byzantine ‘laminar’ armour

“…but what this one (painting) lacks in elegance of feature he more than makes up for in the lively expressiveness of his wide face with its bent nose and big eyes. For this is no heavenly bureaucrat or armchair general but a real leader of the Host who has fought manfully against the powers of evil in a harsh world.” Deep into Mani, Peter Greenhalgh.

When Greenhalgh visited the church, we can be fairly sure that the rather inappropriate red plastic picnic table and chairs outside were not there.

Coming back into Stavri from Tigani, take the right turn just before the hotel if you want to continue on to Kipoula and Cavo Grosso. You will immediately pass a modern church on your right that has an image of the “evil eye” carved in stone above the doorway- another example of pagan beliefs living side by side with Christianity. The dirt road snakes downwards and then steeply upwards, through the tiny hamlets of Agios Athanasios and Pori and on to Kipoula. Just before you hit the ‘centre’ of Kipoula then you will see a track running off to your left. Follow this as it curves to the right behind the village and then you will see a church on your right with a tikles roof. It has a single apse and what was probably an ossuary built onto the north wall, and although it looks very plain from the outside, the interior is a completely different story. The first thing you notice as you enter is that it has two arched recesses, one on either side of the naos. They are not very high but they are a most unusual feature and still have frescos inside and around them. Above the archway on the south wall is an inscription and from this we know that the church was built in 1265 and is dedicated to the Agioi Anargyroi though it mainly deals with the financing of the project;

The most venerable church was founded for fourteen and a half coins. (They offered) the priest Michael one coin, his brother, Leon, one coin, Kalarchos one coin, Michael one fourth, Kolarchos half a coin. It was finished by my hand, I who am Nikolaos the painter from the village Retzitza, together with my brother and pupil Theodore, in the month of June, on the sixth day, 6773 (1265).”

Rekitza is on the border of Messinia and Arcadia.

Kipoula and ancient Ippola

Even the origins of the name of the modern day village of Kipoula is open to conjecture – the diminutive of ‘kipos’ (‘garden’ in Greek) or a continuation of the name of the ancient settlement of Ippola? If the latter, this could be taken even further as part of this settlement was Ano (‘apano’ or ‘upper’) Poula up on Cavo Grosso, thus the lower part could be “kato” Poula which when contracted gives the modern day Kipoula.. As you pass through the village, stop to muse over the extraordinary ‘church within a church’ on your right. The story here is that a local in an act of religious fervour decided to build a new church around the already existing family church. The patron died before completion and the project was left unfinished. The modern building is unusual in design and the inner church, though locked, has some interesting marble fragments embedded in its outer walls, presumably pilfered from much earlier buildings. Heading out of the hamlet you soon come to a sign taking you off on a wide dirt track to your right to ancient Ippola. Or does it? Once again the exact location of this site is unknown – not surprising when you consider that as early as the 3rd century AD the ‘city’was in ruins according to the travel writer Pausanias. The most common opinion is that Ippola was split, with the Ano Poula providing an acropolis. Pausanias refers to a shrine to Athena which some maps mark as being up on Cavo Grosso which makes sense if, as Leake asserted in 1805, the ancient site did indeed make use of the height of the escarpment to place a temple on.

Cavo Grosso

If you fancy your chances of locating the shrine to Athena or have a penchant for walking along very rocky paths or indeed would like to meet some local cows, then a visit up to Cavo Grosso is a must. The views are fantastic – to the north Tigani, Mezapos and beyond to Areopolis, east across the plain to the mountains (and in particular the two towers of Leontaki, nestling in the hills like Bugs Bunny’s teeth) and south all the way down to Tainaron. Cavo Grosso was known as the ‘Thyrides’ (windows) in ancient times due to a number of sea-caves lining its base. Nowadays, the plateau is a labyrinth of ruins and stonewalls, all partially hidden by low growing scrub. Heading along the dirt road from Kipoula, the first path zig-zags up past two easily visible churches, nestling in the side of the escarpment. If you park here and walk up, there are two choices once on top – heading north to two derelict churches and then back again or heading south, coming down another path near the village of Dri and then along the dirt road back to the car. The walk to the churches will take around 45 minutes each way. Once you have hopped over the walls that run the length of the eastern side of the plateau, it is not difficult to pick up the rocky path that fairly immediately passes the first ruin and after this, red way-marks aid keeping to the easiest route. The two churches, perched right on the cliff edge above Kipoula, are not completely derelict and Agios Theodoros, the northern one of the two, contains fluted marble columns and column bases. The other also has some carved marbles which have obviously come from an earlier temple or building, presumably from ancient Ippola. The very faint wall paintings have surprising significance to Byzantine art historians (surprising because if you look down to watch where you are putting your feet, this 1000 year old relic has now clearly been reduced to being used as a cow shed…) as there are remains of frescos from three distinct periods: can you make out the 11th century Descent into Hell and the Entry into Jerusalem on the curve of the south wall or the 13th century Ascension scene painted on the ceiling just inside the sanctuary?

Heading eastwards from Cavo Grosso back into the plain and the confusing network of roads, the chances of getting a little lost are further increased by a profusion of Niklian villages all beginning with ‘K’. Karavas, Kounos, Keria, Kechrianika, Kita and Kaloni form a kind of ring around the southern end of the mini circuit. Each could simply be driven through en route elsewhere or if you want to stop for a little exploration and to clear your mind to work out exactly where you are, there are a few things that could be pointed out. Kita and Kaloni are back on the main road , so if you want to visit them and rejoin the main road at Gerolimenas, you’ll have to backtrack up the main road.

Karavas

Whichever direction you approach from you need to turn into a narrow, signed lane into the village and turn right, past two derelict churches on your left and park where the road bends sharply to the left by a tall tower built onto the corner of a house. There is a narrow path running due west into the olive groves – follow this for about 100 metres and you come to the church of Agios Nikitas. All the frescos are fairly damaged and faded but have been dated by N. Gioles, a lecturer on Byzantine Archaeology, to a period between 1270 and 1290 in the main body of the church and in the narthex to the second decade of the 14th century when the narthex was built. The former include a barely visible Virgin in the conch of the apse, flanked by the Archangel Gabriel, ‘The Harrowing of Hell’, the Nativity, fragments of the Presentation in the Temple and a small section (back end of donkey) from the Triumphal Entry. There are various saints including Agios Nikitas wearing a coronet and mounted on a white horse. All that remains of the crucifixion on the west wall is a group of soldiers, one of whom is carrying a long tapering ‘Norman’ style shield. In the narthex, above the door which leads into the nave, is a fresco of the Panagia ‘Kecharitomeni’ which means ‘The Charming’. Other depictions include Michael and Gabriel flanking the Panagia, the Baptism, Saints Nikolaos and possibly Damian to the left of the door, other Saints on the north wall and a very faded ‘Assumption’ of the Virgin on the south wall.

Kounos

As you approach Kounos from Karavas, about 50 metres before the junction from Kipoula, there is a white concrete house on your left and immediately before it, a concrete road running off to the left. Take this road and keep bearing left until you reach a ‘car park’ outside the walls and gate of a graveyard. This is known locally as ‘Pentakia’ (the five churches) and there are two churches here that you could visit if you are in the mood. There are a further two churches in ruins and among the bushes is probably a fifth; hence the name.

The larger of the two churches is called Agios Georgios. Inside the church, there are some wonderful frescos although many are damaged or faded, including St George with a very strange looking horse’s head with what appears to be St George’s shield behind it, a badly faded Last Supper and numerous armed saints. A fairly barren apse does have the gem of a fairly severe looking St Simeon the Stylite – and rightly so for an ascetic who spent 40 years perched 60 feet in the air on a pillar.

The similar but smaller (and longer could it originally have been 2 churches to make up the 5?) Agios Nikolaos next door has the usual Hodegetria and Christ Enthroned on the templon with John the Baptist flanking them on one wall and on the opposing wall the ‘Dormition of the Virgin Mary’ – the ‘Koimesis’ which means literally the ‘falling asleep’ or death of the Virgin. The Virgin is shown lying on a bed surrounded by the Apostles and Christ holding her soul represented by a child wrapped in swaddling clothes. If you look carefully at the edge of the bier in which the Virgin is lying, you will see a pair of disembodied hands and, to the left of this, an angel holding a sword. This is not always depicted in Dormition icons but refers to a legend recorded in 4th century texts and Byzantine writings that say that a Jew, Jephonias, touched the bier and an angel immediately cut off his hands. In the ‘Painters Manual’ of Dionysius of Fourna, he describes the scene to include “a Hebrew is before the bed with his hands cut off and hanging from the bed and an angel with a naked sword.”

Keria

Another detour to another church can be found at Keria. Once you have turned into the village the 13th century Agios Ioannis is on your right. It has recycled a great variety of carved marble in the outer walls in a seemingly random manner. Two ancient columns are set in the concrete of the courtyard and you can see two or three Ionic column capitals embedded in the west wall as well as other fragments of old marble which must have come from an early temple – perhaps at Ippola. There are also elaborately carved Byzantine marble pieces that must have come from an older church templon. Unfortunately, some of these ‘borrowed’ pieces have been stolen themselves, the most glaring example of which was an ancient tombstone that was laid horizontally to the right of the door, showing two women and two men holding hands as though saying a fond farewell. This was recorded and sketched by the Italian Anconitano Ciriaco who travelled through this area in 1447. Someone hacked this antique out of the church wall in the spring of 1999.

Ochia

Heading back to the main road from Keria, the village of Ochia off to your right, offers a circular detour and a chance to take in a couple more churches and towers, some of which have folkloric carvings and sculptures in their walls. The 12th century church of Agios Nikolaos is set just outside the village and is recognisable by a large, three-tier bell tower – a rarity in Mesa Mani whereas there are many in the Exo Mani. This domed church is set back from the road on the other side of the village and is architecturally interesting, sporting a number of gargoyle-like waterspouts around the dome. As you pass through Ochia you will see a couple of ruined towers and another twin church, dedicated to Agios Petros (St. Peter) and Panagia (Virgin Mary). They are both barrel-vaulted, built of megalithic stones. Their templons have the remains of some frescos inside and in one, the doorway of the templon is made of two large pillars with a large lintel perched precariously above them.

From Ochia the road continues down to the little fishing village of Gerolimenas and the main Areopolis road.

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