‘L’auberge espagnole de la Résistance’

…. which is, being very roughly translated, our pot-luck picnic on the Resistance trail.

Posh picnic?  I think not. But it's the taste  and the company - that counts.
Posh picnic? I think not. But it’s the taste and the company – that counts.

Jean-Charles has long wanted to get us up to Croquié, a village high above the road between Foix and Tarascon, for a walk with a 360 degree panorama of the Pyrenees, and a very moving monument to some of the Maquisards who died fighting in the French resistance in World War II.  This really was the last Sunday we could go, and the day was glorious: hot, with clear blue skies and views for miles and miles in every direction.

Neither Malcolm nor I is particularly on form at the moment, so while our Laroquais friends yomped up a semi-vertical path, deeply slicked in mud, we went part-way up the mountainside from the village of Croquié by car, and then walked on up by road (a road, however, closed to cars) to meet the rest of the group.

Our first destination was the Monument to the Resistance.  This site, with views across to the mountains dividing us from Spain, far-reaching from west to east, was chosen as a memorial site not because it was a war-time battle ground.  Instead it was a training school for resistance fighters from France, Spain and beyond.  There are no barracks, no lecture-halls, no buildings of any kind.  Instead the men led hidden existences among the forest trees and rocks.  And now there is a fine memorial to them.  Singled out were two men who died in nearby Vira (the area where we walked last week) a Maquis stronghold, one who died in our neighbouring town of Bélesta, and one who died following deportation.  There is a statue to these men, who are nevertheless depicted without facial features.  In this way they stand representative for all the men – and women – who died whether through fighting, by acting as liaison workers, or by offering essential support by giving shelter, clothing and food.  Individuals did not pass over to Spain from here: the border is too far away.  Instead they were driven to one of the freedom trails such as those near Oust and Seix.  Petrol?  It could be organised, albeit with difficulty.  A key man ran a garage.

The sculptor of this monument is Ted Carrasco.  A native of Bolivia, pre-Columbian art  is a clear influence on his work.  He seeks always for his pieces to be in harmony with the environment in which they are placed.  His monumental granite figures look over to the Pyrenees which were the scene of their fight against fascism and the Nazi occupation of France.

Time to move on, however.  Our path took us slowly upwards through forest, along a track which became increasingly snow-covered and tough going.  However, it was only 3 km. or so until we reached the top, where there’s a refuge dedicated to the memory of its original owner, Henri Tartie, known as ‘l ‘Aynat’ – the elder, in Occitan.  The original structure is tiny, but served as shelter to many a Maquisard .  Now it’s a wood store, because a newer concrete annexe has been added with cooking facilities so that hardy mountain walkers can rest, make a meal, and warm themselves up.

We commandeered a circular concrete table outside, with apparently unending views of those Pyrenees, and somehow squeezed all ten of us round.  We unpacked our food:  as ever there was wine to share, rhum baba à l’orange, galette charentaise, biscuits – all home-made, of course.  Malcolm and I knew it was our last walk with our friends.  The fine views, the fine company, the cheerful conversation had a predictable effect.  We became tearful.  But so grateful that this walk was a bit of a first.  Extra-special views, extra-special weather for March, the chance to get close to an important slice of Ariègeois history, and our extra-special friends.  We shan’t be with them next Sunday: there’ll be too much to do.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

The two of us, just after lunch.
The two of us, just after lunch.

Down among the dusty archives

Laroque d'Olmes' town insignia
Laroque d’Olmes’ town insignia

Like every commune in France – apart from those who’ve lost everything in flood, fire or time of war – Laroque has shelves, yards and yards of them, of municipal archives.   In the main these are bound volumes of directives from central government relating to the Ariège.  There are also endless files of copies of forms relating to hatches, matches and despatches, licenses for liquor, permission to drive carriages, horseless or otherwise, toll roads, road improvements, land sales, local disasters such as landslip and flooding, records of meetings, residency requests, paperwork relating to shops, artisans, workmen an apprentices, immigrants….  all human life is here.  That’s before you realise there are bundles of engravings, daguerreotypes, photographs…..

They aren’t indexed.

Laroque’s Commission du Patrimoine, of which I am an enthusiastic but fairly useless member (I have no Tales of the Oldest Inhabitant, no competence to research French documents, no skills in artefact restoration or in industrial archaeology) has realised this situation must change.

An early job is to trawl through the central government volumes, which date from the early 18th century, and extract any information relating to Laroque.  I can help here.  It’s a question of skimming these volumes for relevant entries.

A bobbin worker immortalised in Laroque's Council Chamber
A bobbin worker immortalised in Laroque’s Council Chamber

Three of us sat down on Friday morning in the old Council Chamber of the Mairie, with its wall decorations showing noted politicians and industrialists, as well as allusions to the all-important textile industry.  We had dusty piles of leather-bound volumes on the table in front of us.  We turned to. It was fairly dry repetitive work, so we kept each other amused by reading out things that caught our eye.  There were tales of Mayors drummed out of office (not from Laroque, no of course not) for inappropriate drunkenness.  There were the lists of clothes to be supplied to those children raised in institutions, and the money made available for the care of each child.

An infant from 1 day to 9 months old needs:3 blouses, 2 vests, 6 (6 only?) nappies, 3 swaddling blankets, 2 baby's bonnets, a woollen dress and 2 bootees.
An infant from 1 day to 9 months old needs:3 blouses, 2 vests, 6 (6 only?) nappies, 3 swaddling blankets, 2 baby’s bonnets, a woollen dress and 2 bootees.
11-12 year old girl: 3 cloth blouses, woollen coat, cotton coat, cotton apron, cap, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 lined caps, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair shoes. 11-12 year old boy: 3 cloth shirts, 1 pair trousers, 1 vest, 1 waistcoat, 2 ties, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair lined shoes.  After 12, they made their own way in the world
11-12 year old girl: 3 cloth blouses, woollen coat, cotton coat, cotton apron, cap, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 lined caps, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair shoes. 11-12 year old boy: 3 cloth shirts, 1 pair trousers, 1 vest, 1 waistcoat, 2 ties, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair lined shoes. After 12, they made their own way in the world

I was intrigued to learn that there was in the 19th century, a single training school  in the Pas-de-Calais in the north of France for would-be shepherds.  Why would you spare your 16-year-old son to go to the other end of France, at some expense, to acquire his training (though there were no fees), when he could be back at home learning on the job?  There was a similar mining school in the east of France.

A demanding clothing list for the shepherds' school: 8 new shirts, 8 pairs of stockings or socks, 2 cravats, 8 handkerchiefs, 5 blouses, 2 pairs winter trousers, 3 pairs summer trousers, 2 waistcoats, 3 woollen jumpers, 2 new pairs shoes, 2 pairs clogs and liners.  The shcool did the laundry though.
A demanding clothing list for the shepherds’ school: 8 new shirts, 8 pairs of stockings or socks, 2 cravats, 8 handkerchiefs, 5 blouses, 2 pairs winter trousers, 3 pairs summer trousers, 2 waistcoats, 3 woollen jumpers, 2 new pairs shoes, 2 pairs clogs and liners. The school did the laundry though.

We were good though.  We completed our self-appointed tasks.  We found Laroque mentioned throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as all other communes, in connection with, for example:

  • understanding its precise obligations to maintain communal roads and paths.
  • submitting to standardised checks to ensure fair weights and measures were being applied locally.
  • submitting returns showing who had joined the army, and in what capacity.
  • We learned where the nearest doctors, midwives (‘sage-femmes‘) and pharmacists to Laroque were.

Despite moments of tedium, this was a fascinating morning.  I was privileged to inspect these old records, and to gain a little more understanding of life during this period, and an appreciation of just how far the long arm of the state, whether imperial or republican, extended.

Directives from the Empire in 1870 about fishing, recruitment to the national guard, ...er...mayflies, and billhooks
Directives from the Empire in 1870 about fishing, recruitment to the national guard, …er…mayflies, and billhooks
Imperial constitution and rights of succession
Imperial constitution and rights of succession

A Renaissance feast

Mirepoix: Wikipedia Commons
Mirepoix: Wikipedia Commons

Along the road from us is Mirepoix: the pretty town, the one with the half-timbered houses set  round a central square, where it’s good to sit outside with a nice cool beer of a summer evening surveying several centuries of history.  A bit of a contrast with shabby old Laroque.  It’s something of a Mecca for both locals and tourists, as it has a busy programme of festivals throughout the year, celebrating everything from Jazz and Swing to the apple harvest.

There was new one the other week, La Fête de la Gastronomie.  We missed most of the talks, walks, demonstrations and foodie events, what with being in Bilbao.  But we did get back just in time to catch the visit to a tiny church in the tiny nearby hamlet of Mazerettes.  This was no church guided tour however.  We’d come to hear Martine Rouche talk about the fresco there, depicting the feast of Herod during which the head of John the Baptist was dished up.  No, it wasn’t an art history lecture either, nor a biblical exposition. Martine Rouche has researched this fresco – one of several recently restored in the church –  to help us understand dining and feasting in this part of 16th century France.

P1080352

The fresco is dated 1533, so Herod’s feast reflects the customs in use at that date.  At that time, there was no special room designated for dining.  The host had the table arranged wherever it suited him best, whether it was the main hall or a bed-chamber.  In contrast with the fine elaborate costumes worn by the guests, the table itself is quite simply and starkly dressed.  Not so many years before, food had been served on ‘tranchoirs‘, thick solid slices of bread.  Now, simple round plates were provided.

There weren’t many glasses on the table either.  P1080371These were expensive rare items still, so guests expected to share .  Servants would hover, ready to refill glasses as required, and everyone would drink from the glass nearest them.  Glasses didn’t come as a matching set: there were as many designs as there were drinking vessels.

Besides these, there were drageoires of crystal, designed to hold sugar and spices, which guests would nibble at throughout the meal.  This fashion for having these expensive and elegant tit-bits spread from Italy through southern France and Lyon , eventually reaching this area.

A drageoire
A drageoire

There were knives.  These were personal property.  You’d take your own with you and use it both to cut food, and as a means of conveying it to your mouth: no forks yet.  Then you’d take it home with you again.

And this curved implement is a furgeoir.  You may not want to have one at table yourself.  The pointed end is a toothpick, but you’d have used the spoon-like end to scoop out earwax when the fancy took you.

A furgeoir and a couple of plates
A furgeoir and a couple of plates

Under the table is a nef.  Though this one isn’t, such containers were often in the shape of a nautilus shell.  P1080367The principal guest at a banquet might have one as a sort of superior picnic hamper.  He’d use it to keep his knife, his napkin, maybe some spices, and some anti-poison specifics.  Later, the nef was replaced by the cadena, which might have several different compartments.

As to the food served, there are few clues here.  Apart from the head of John the Baptist, which was not intended to be eaten,  there were some sides of ham and other fairly unidentifiable items.  More information comes from contemporary receipt books.  Local  grandee Phillippe de Lévis, who was responsible for commissioning the frescos in the church, also hired patissiers, who of course submitted detailed bills .  These confirm what we already know: that the church calendar ruled.  Periods of plenty (‘régimes gras’) were interspersed with simpler and restricted ‘régimes maigres‘. Every Friday, Lent and Advent among others were ‘maigres‘ .  Meat and dairy products were  avoided in favour of simpler, less rich foods.  Fish was generally allowed, but for the wealthy, this was scarcely a privation.  The River Hers was rich in salmon, and would be prepared with fine and not-at-all-simple spices: cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves – and sugar.  Even certain water fowl, such as the moorhen –  ‘poule d’eau’ – were considered honorary fish.

But outside those periods of abstinence, what feasting took place!  A meal might begin with individual tarts, and go on to several courses of salads, fruits, boiled meats, roast meats, sauced meats.  From our point of view, the courses differed little from one another.  Our clear expectations of the kind of things that might appear as an entrée, a main course and a desert did not hold good back in the 16th century.

It all sounded pretty unappetising.  What with sharing glasses, enduring course after course of rich and highly spiced food, it would probably have been a relief to go home .  The men at least had opportunities with hunting and other manly pusuits to burn off a few calories.  Not quite so easy for the women, I think.

And thank you, Martine Rouche, for a fascinating and entertaining afternoon.

Monks, marble, and a look-alike church

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Here in Laroque , we have a Commission du Patrimoine, attached to the town council.  It has many enthusiastic and knowledgeable members who seek to preserve, restore and celebrate certain historic buildings, who manage the municipal archives, who research (for instance) the history of the area’s farms and who organise exhibitions.  It has other members who are like me, frankly, free-loaders.  We trot along to meetings but have little expertise to offer.  But we were all in favour of the day out organised last Saturday.

We started off in Caunes-Minervois, a small town in the Aude.  Most of us associate the Minervois with wine production, and we’re not wrong.    I didn’t know though that near Caunes Minervois there are important marble quarries, worked since Roman times.  It seems half the important buildings in Paris sourced their marble there … the Louvre, les Invalides, l’Opéra…. and then there are Fontainebleu and Versailles too.   It rivals Carrara in importance and marble is quarried here still: many colours, but mainly a rather plummy pink.

We came though to visit the Benedictine Abbey.  There’s been an abbey here since 790, and though the Carolingian buildings have long gone, the crypt, with early sarcophagi, remains beneath the present church.  It’s a rotten site  for a church in many ways, prone to an excess of water immediately below ground, so the four Christian martyrs whose relics are venerated here are targets for prayer that drought should not strike.  Have devotees been praying just a little too fervently this year?

The Abbey has had a long and complex religious and political history which you can read about here. We started by visiting the 17th century cloisters, austere and simple, as befits a building used by the Benedictine order. Then there’s another vaulted room in the complex with an interesting feature. Stand in a corner and whisper your confession, and the sound will travel up to the roof, over and down the other side into the ear of the listening priest.  He will be able to offer you absolution by whispering from his corner, in the knowledge that if you are carrying the plague, or some other contagious disease he’s at a safe distance from you.  We all tried it.  It works – the whispering that is.

The abbey became simply a parish church at the time of the French Revolution. From outside, it’s a fine Romanesque and early Gothic building, in a spacious uncluttered setting – the buildings that used to huddle up to it have been removed.  Within, it’s a temple to the local marble, and to that of Carrara: there are even Italian statues owing something to the school of Michelangelo.  Much of the former monastery is now used as space for art exhibitions.

Then it was off to lunch.  Another treat.  Not far from the village is another small  church, Notre Dame du Cros.  It’s in a splendid setting, in a gorge surrounded by craggy rocks.  Stone tables and benches were there beneath the shady plane trees and we had one of those shared picnics the French do so well: home made apéritifs, home cured sausage, home made pies and cakes, home grown fruit, wine…..

And then it was time for the look-alike church.  Still in the Minervois, there’s another village, Puicheric.  Its parish church bears a remarkable resemblance to ours here in Laroque.  Hence our visit.  Puicheric’s church, though, has a more intimate, homely feel.  This turns out to be because during the 19th century, those responsible for the church at Laroque had delusions of grandeur, encouraged by the likes of Viollet-le-Duc who promoted Gothic architecture in buildings where such features had never previously existed.  The roof height was raised, at vast expense, to create a more ‘Gothic’ feel to the building.

Nevertheless, Notre-Dame de Puicheric has a claim to fame as a place of pilgrimage.  Back in 1700 a marble staue of the Madonna was being shipped from Italy along the Canal du Midi, past Puicheric, bound for some fine church in Aquitaine.  Once in Puicheric, the barge could go no further, detained by some irresistible force.  The statue was taken to the church, and there it remains to this day, an object of veneration.

And then there’s the château.  Laroque had a castle once too, and we still have the odd remaining bit of wall.  Simon de Montfort saw that off, as so many other things round here.  Puicheric’s still looks very imposing – from round the back.  From the other side, what you get is a rather splendid chambres d’hôtes.  It had an aristocratic past, though much of the original site was destroyed by our very own Black Prince in 1355.  It housed the nobility until the French Revolution and then passed into the hands of a family with whom it remained until 1990.  Now it’s the home and business of Dominica and Phillippe Gouze, who aim to offer modern hospitality whilst retaining all those elements from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and long before that which inform its character.  We were seduced by the garden, the views, the ancient tower with a faded fresco of someone doing something dreadful to a dragon, and by the story-telling powers of our host.

While we were there, we could have seen so much more, as clicking through the links would reveal.  But that will have to be for another day ….  or two ….. or three.

To view any of the pictures in a larger format, simply click on the image.

A man, a plan, a canal

Pierre-Paul Riquet.  Pierre-Paul Riquet?  Who’s he?  He’s not much known in the UK, and I’m not sure how much of a household name he is in France either.

Pierre-Paul Riquet.  Here he is, in the village of Bonrepos-Riquet.
Pierre-Paul Riquet. Here he is, in the village of Bonrepos-Riquet.

But he should be.  He’s the brains behind the wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Canal du Midi.  This lovely and elegant canal, opened in 1681, is 240 km. long, and runs from Toulouse to the Mediterranean.  It was built as a short cut from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, avoiding a long sea voyage round Spain.  The idea had been discussed on and off since Roman times, but the problem was always the same.  How to deal with such hilly terrain and how to supply those hilly sections with enough water.

The Canal du Midi: a typical view, courtesy of Wikipedia
The Canal du Midi: a typical view, courtesy of Wikipedia

Riquet thought he had the answer.  Born in 1604 or 1609, he was a salt-tax collector.  Tax collecting was a rich man’s job: at that time, it involved paying all the monies due to the king up-front, and worrying about collecting from the relevant subjects later. A rich man can have a fine home, so Riquet set out to buy the ideal spot, and in 1652, he found it: the ancient but run-down Château de Bonrepos, near Toulouse.  It was a medieval building originally, fortified in the 16th century.  It interested him because it was a fine site, with splendid views of the Pyrenees (Not today: the weather was awful. Never saw the mountains at all through the gloom).  More importantly for him, the surrounding terrain, resembling parts of the nearby Montagne Noire, enabled him to conduct hydraulic experiments round an ancient fishpond on site from which he developed reservoirs and water-filled trenches replicating sections of the future Canal du Midi.  Bonrepos, then, was where he worked up his case for showing that the canal could after centuries of simply talking about it, become a reality.

The remnants of the mediaeval building interested him not at all.  He had a fine classical building built – 100 rooms.  Stone isn’t available locally, so it was built of Toulouse brick, and faced with stucco to hide this embarrassing fact: bricks were elsewhere the material of the poor.  He had formal gardens built, orchards, an orangery.  Every winter, an iceberg’s worth of ice was wrapped in hessian and floated from the Pyrenees to be stored in an excavated ice-house deep in the woodlands for use throughout the summer.

These days, the château is in a bad way.  The stucco’s falling off, the windows are rotted, and the internal decorations are absent or shabby.  The inhabitants of the small village where the château stands, Bonrepos-Riquet, bought the property some years ago, and while appealing for and attracting public and private funds, it also relies on monthly working parties of volunteers, who work enthusiastically in the house and grounds to stem the damage caused by wind and weather and to bring about improvements.

We visited today on one of Elyse Rivin’s informative Toulouse Guided Walks , which always focus on those corners of Toulouse and the surrounding area which you never knew about: you leave after her tour feeling an enthusiastic expert.  With input from the château’s own volunteer guides, steeped in the story of the place, we formed a picture of Paul Riquet himself.  He persuaded Louis XIV of his ability to master-mind the canal, and in 1661, work began, though he didn’t live to see the waterway opened as he died in 1680, leaving enormous debt and financial problems for his children who nevertheless continued the project.  The labourers – men and women, up to 12,000 of them – who built the canal were among the best paid workers in Europe, to the disapproval of other less philanthropic employers.  He insisted on provision being made for all aspects of their lives, from shops and refreshment to education and worship.

Those plane trees that line the canal.  They offered shade, then as now, to those who travel along it.  Their root systems bind the soil and offer stability to the canal, and the leaves don’t rot, so as they fall into the canal, they help make a waterproof base.  Sadly, these days those trees are afflicted by a virus.  One theory is that the wooden boxes which packaged American munitions in the war and were discarded along the canal, carried the infected spores and lay dormant for many years.

And there’s so much else.  Follow the links to get a fuller picture of the story, or better still, visit the Canal du Midi and Château Bonrepos, where this wonderful waterway was conceived and planned.

Château de Fiches

This weekend, as any fule kno (thank you, Nigel Molesworth.  That’s quite enough from you) are the European Heritage Days, when hosts of historic buildings not normally much open to the public, throw open their doors to curious locals.

So when Léonce proposed going to Château de Fiches, we were keen.  If you come home the back way from Pamiers, past villages with evocative names such as Seigneurix (Surely Asterix and Obelix can’t be far away?) and Parent, you’ll pass its fairly undistinguished drive-way: we’ve passed it dozens of times before, and it’s always been shut.

This gives some idea of the charmingly domestic scale of the operation

Not today.  This weekend, the team were keen to show the place off.  If you want a château complete with crenellated façade and turrets, you’ve come to the wrong place. This 16th century building is strictly domestic, more farmhouse than stately home.  It was built originally for a Toulousain Parliamentarian, and later passed into the hands of a lawyer from Pamiers, Joseph Fauré, whose family own it still.  It has unexpected treasures, most of which I wasn’t allowed to photograph.

Back in the 19th century, someone in the family went plant collecting, some 1600 specimens.  Nobody knows whether it was the plants themselves that were collected whilst travelling, or simply the seeds which were then raised back here in France.  Dried, mounted, thrust in dense piles deep into a cabinet, they’re only recently being catalogued by an English couple, Mavis and John Midgley, excited to use their expertise in this way.

I can show you photos of the kitchen.  Enjoy the mechanical mayonnaise maker, the coffee grinder, the charming and enormous hearth.

Churn round your egg yolks, oil and so on in here, and apparently mayonnaise will emerge
Here’s the coffee grinder
And here’s the hearth

I can share pictures of the library.

The library

What you can’t see is the bestiary.  This is such a shame.  Painted in the 16th century, a series of charming and vibrantly coloured animals enliven the beams of a ceiling on the upper floor.  The artist is unknown to us, just as elephants, camels, monkeys, satyrs and so on were unknown to him.  He got his information third, fourth or fifth hand, and made an efficient if imaginative job of visually describing the 40 or so beasts he illustrates.  On safer ground with rabbits and peacocks, he painted every single beast, known and unknown, with vitality and verve.  Another equally interesting ceiling is currently being revealed.  Part of this are painted more in the manner of blue and white Delft ware.  If you’re round this way, they’re worth a look.

It’s only a shame that all the various treasures of the Heritage Weekend are usually available For One Weekend Only.  So much to see, so little time.

In search of a druid – or a trout

Mont d’Olmes: local playground for skiers.  You wouldn’t travel any great distance to spend a holiday here, but for locals, it’s the ideal winter sports spot.  It’s a wonderful area for walkers too.  We’ve only just begun to discover the wealth of footpaths, mainly across truly ‘sauvage’ slopes, with views downwards to Montségur, Roquefixade, and northwards almost, it seems, as far as Toulouse.

It’s alright waxing lyrical though.  For many people living in the area many years past, and until the early years of the 20th century, these slopes were the places where they came for long hours each day, working both on the surface and by crawling through narrow airless tunnels, mining talc.

Talc?  Yes, that stuff you sprinkle on babies’ bottoms.  That stuff those Olympic gymnasts plunge their hands into before taking to an overhead bar.  That stuff that apparently still has many industrial uses, notably in the ceramics industry and for plastics paints and coatings.  This soft soapstone was found here on Mont d’Olmes and is still mined in nearby Luzenac.  Here though, all that is left are the gashes in the mountainside where the workings once were, and a few ancient trucks once used to transport the material down to civilisation.

Come and take the path we took last Sunday.  We walked in more or less a straight line, up and down hill after hill, as the path became increasingly rocky and impassable.  Our reward was the occasional handful of raspberries or bilberries, then a lunchtime picnic by l’étang des Druides.  No, sorry, l’étang des Truites.  Whatever.  Nobody seems to know which name is correct.  Some say the person making the first map of the area misheard and wrote ‘truite’ – trout – instead of ‘druide’.  We saw no trout.  We definitely saw no druids.  But we had a jolly nice picnic.  And I paddled.  And then ruined a perfectly good day, in which morning chill and mist had given over to hot sunshine, by falling flat against the rocky path, cutting open my face and chipping three teeth.  I hope the druids weren’t lining me up for some kind of sacrifice.

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