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Trip Report: Romania, Budapest and NE Hungary. Curses, blessings and cabbage

Trip Report: Romania, Budapest and NE Hungary. Curses, blessings and cabbage

Nov 30th, 2004, 09:14 PM
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Trip Report: Romania, Budapest and NE Hungary. Curses, blessings and cabbage

This is my first shot at writing one of these things, so let's see how we go. I'm flying by the seat of my pants, as I wasn't as faithful as I should have been with the journal thing. To put it mildly. I'll try to start with a bit of an executive overview for some that prefer the basic facts and figures. I'm warning you though, knowing me, this isn't going to be short or pretty. Posting in sections, as life goes on.

A bit about us
We tend to travel fairly budget and were pretty loose with our plans. No spreadsheets. One American/UnitedStatesian and one Australian traveling on her Irish passport, ages 41 and 27. Clean, comfortable and well located are fine for accomodations, anything else is a bonus. We like a good meal but manage on pubs or whatever, when necessary.

Language prep
We'd originally considered Italy for this trip, but decided on something different. I'd done some learn in your car Italian CDs, but Romanian, where we were going to spend the most time, was harder to find. Pimsleur does have a course though. And I found that the Italian very often was useful in picking up the Romanian, as it's also mostly a romance language. Very close to original latin, I understand, but with Slavic and Hungarian influences. Managed to be able to learn a couple dozen greetings, niceties and functional questions and we mimed our way through the rest. English was common in cities, but not so much in villages. It seems that French would have been very useful in rural areas, as a quite a few people asked if we spoke it. We did meet several ethnic Saxons who still spoke German, despite their being in Romania for many generations.

German would have also been somewhat useful in a couple of instances within Hungary. Hungarian though... whewww... we managed please, thank you and hello. It's a tough, tough language. English, fortunately, was widely spoken in the parts of Hungary we visited.

We also had a pocket size Berlitz Eastern Europe phrase book with us, just in case.

We took:
- A Nikon D70 digital SLR camera and 2 lens with a spare battery. I like my photography, even if it's not a real talent.
- Mini-camcorder
- A Flashtrax device with a 20GB hard drive, a built-in compact flash slot, a screen for viewing/organizing/renaming photos, plus you can listen to music and watch movies on it. Also took a car charger cord. This was a very useful device.
- Tri-band phone (ours from home on T-Mobile world service). Worked fine in both countries. Just had it in case of trouble.

Currency and costs
The bank exchange rates at the time we went were:

197 Hungarian forints = $1 USD
~33000 Romanian lei = $1 USD

Many hotels in both countries quote rates in Euro online. If they take credit cards, don't let them charge in Euro (they may), as you will pay for the exchange twice, unless you are from a Euro country. A couple of charges got past us, but overall it seemed to be in our best interest to have the charges in local currency.

ATMs were easy to find in Hungary. It wasn't really hard to find them in Romania either, but small towns and villages don't often have a bank or ATm that we saw. Larger towns such as Sighetu Marmatiei and Gura Humorului sometimes only have one at the center of town. We never had a problem getting our Visa check/debit card to work, as long as the ATM was working.

A word on credit cards. In Hungary, we were able to use a credit card in most places. The only problem we had was one shopkeeper who hadn't ever used her machine before. In Romania though, almost every time we tried to use one, except at a couple of larger hotels, we were told we MUST have a pin number. This included smaller hotels (that would take one at all) and gas stations. Only one Restaurant took one, that we found.

The trip started and ended in Budapest, arriving Oct 20, heading back Nov 6th. We flew out of St. Louis on American and had a fairly uneventful flight each way. Upgraded to business on the way back. (Yay - yes indeed, more warm nuts please).

We spent 3 days in Budapest, getting our feet under us and with the idea that if the bags didn't make it, we'd have a base to be found at. For these days, we pre-arranged the Taverna Hotel on the pedestrian Vaci Utca. They have a back entrance that allows for a taxi dropoff. However we took the airport minibus which is 2100 Forints. Can't remember what the return cost was, as we caught a cab back to the airport for the return trip, as we had to go at 5am. The minibus is very easy. Exit the secured area at BUD and look right. Walk up to counter and tell them you need the minibus and what your hotel is. Pay them, take ticket and sit in designated area. We waited about 15 minutes when someone called a short list of hotels, ours included. About 6 people in a roomy van, but our's was the first stop. Nice service.

More on Budapest later. After Budapest, we have no set schedule for the next few days and no lodging booked. Had Lonely Planet Romania and Rough Guide Romania books and a list of possibilities, though, so we're pretty much ready to roll. We also had the LP Hungary and the Eyewitness Budapest book. Would read in the hotel or the car then leave them when we were on foot.

We planned for a car through Autoeurope, which came from Budget, offices located inside a hotel in Buda, just behind Castle Hill, near the Deli train station. We declined the CDW in favor of MasterCard coverage. Hungary requires a sticker for driving on the M1, M3, M5 highways, but that was included in the rental and affixed to the windshield. Autoeurope was a good choice, as we faced fewer restrictions on crossing the border.

From here, we drove out of the city and headed for the Romanian border near Mako, Hungary. Driving out of Budapest went ok. Just go with the flow and look for a place to cross the river.

Crossing the border was fairly simple as well. Bypass the truck line and had only a couple of cars to wait behind. Watched someone's car being pulled apart and dozens of cartons of off-brand cigarettes being hauled out from a compartment behind the trunk. Later, I wondered why when I saw that Marlboro's were 32000 Romanian Lei (about $.90) per pack at gas stations. The Hungarian officials are all business, but efficient, then you pull a few hundred yards to the Romanian side. We pulled up to the immigration official's booth and fumbled through our first "buna ziua" and handed over the passports. A note here: Australians currently need pre-arranged visas to enter Romania, EU and US citizens do not. The guard asked where we were going (in English) and I began to rattle off a list of likely candidates, starting with Timisoara. Finally settled for "all over... shrug we're tourists". He grins, hands back the passports, and wishes us a nice trip. Customs were even easier. Barely open one of the passports, hands them back and waves us on. Julies from this board had warned about the disinfectant guys, and she was right. Just after we left immigration, there was a large gas station and a bunch of guys at the end of the parking lot near the road. A number of cars are pulled over. Two came running out onto the road, waving their arms, wearing jump suits. In that the road was wide, the officials just before said nothing about another stop, and I saw no official signs, we blew past them and were on our way. Hey, if they were for real and I had just screwed up royally, they'd have come after us, right?

But wait, there's more...
Clifton is offline  
Nov 30th, 2004, 09:39 PM
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General Impressions

I rushed through the Hungarian portion of the drive, essentially as we didn't make any significant stops and the drive is the plains. We didn't find the views that fascinating. Would have liked to stop in Szeged, which looked very nice, but you have to sacifice somewhere. We were planning more time in Hungary later.

I have to say here in that crossing the border, you very quickly realize you have arrived somewhere different. Hungary is full of tidy towns and cities, even with the occasional soviet block style building on the outskirts of town, with plenty of evidence of Hungary's ever growing connection with the West. But... when you cross the border into Romania, the clock goes ahead one hour, while the year almost seems to turn back to the 18th century in places. If you didn't see cars, power lines or the occasional satellite dish, you could be 200 years in the past in many towns and villages. One aspect of driving that we liked was the legacy of neatly lined mature trees down both sides of almost every road, the base of each trunk painted white. Not always the same species from road to road, but on any given stretch, they'd all be obviously planted as a beautification process from some years ago and still well kept.

I swear, I always saw horse carts in photos from Romania, but I figured people had just sort of sought out these photos on the chance they saw one passing by, which of course still occurred somewhat more frequently than the rest of Europe. Nooooo. This is not true. Horse carts are everywhere, all over the roads, even the major highways. In cities. You can drive through a tiny village along a main road and have to swerve around 4 or 5 in the time it takes to get through town. They share the road with bicyclists. And dogs. And herds of cattle. Sheep. Horses ala cart (which in this case means "without cart"). Chickens, ducks, geese, cats and even a pig. Bicyclists. There are almost no fences and we made a bit of a game out of trying to think of what kind of barnyard animal we had not yet seen on the road. Finally seeing a pig standing on the shoulder made it a full house. And people on the roads. Everyone stands on the side of the road to talk. Hitchhikers, including very elderly women and entire families waving in a distinctive style to indicate they need a ride. When they see that the car is foreign, the waving arms drop like rocks. Or it could have just been the sight of us.

At this point, if you're thinking that this is turning into a negative report, this is not the case. This is one of the most fascinating environments I've ever seen. We had a great time. Some of the nicest, most welcoming people I ever met were met on this trip. Now if we only knew what they were saying.

Just getting started. Make coffee... lots of it.

I'm doing Budapest last, by the way, as it's been done very well by so many others anyway.
Clifton is offline  
Nov 30th, 2004, 09:40 PM
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Great report. Waiting for more.
rj007 is offline  
Nov 30th, 2004, 09:55 PM
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Clifton, for someone who is writing his first report you are doing a fantastic job!!! What a read. I can hardly wait for the rest of your report.

What an intersting trip. Thank you for sharing.
LoveItaly is offline  
Nov 30th, 2004, 10:26 PM
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Excellent trip report, CLifton. I'm waiting for more. We traveled in Romania and Budapest about 30 years ago, so I'm very interested to hear more about it today.
Marilyn is offline  
Nov 30th, 2004, 10:57 PM
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On the road (Pt 1 of ???)

We got a bit lost in Arad and wound around in a very bizarre way to get on the track to Timisoara. Arad is a good way to become shell-shocked quickly. I say this in case anyone enters Romania and quickly considers doing a U-turn. Arad looks rough but it's not indicative of the country as a whole. It's dusty, the streets are broken, the buildings are run down soviet style in most cases and the traffic is chaotic. A four lane road with double parked horse carts and Dacias. Drivers just weave and hop the curb, driving down the cobblestoned tram lines to get by. So we did too. This, for some odd reason, made me smile. Still does. Just get through Arad and you'll be fine. We did get a little lost. The signs were Deva/Timisoara all the way through, but suddenly it was just Deva (east). Knowing Timisoara was south, we took the south road which was unlabeled. Many, many blocks down the road and after a spirited discussion of the wisdom of our choice (of both the southern route and of Romania in general), we see a Timisoara sign that points hard left. Down a single, winding, rutted, cobblestone lane, more of an alley really, that meanders through town and through the stares of residents nearby. Yet the signs DO say "Timisoara" and my wife, to this day, swears that was the right road all along. It was the narrow alley and the fact that there was a tram track in the middle of this alley that I hold as evidence that there had to be a better way. Either way, we managed to connect with a suspiciously good road after 20 blocks or so and were on our way again. For those of you who are now certain that this isn't your kind of trip, please do know that this was about 20 mins of weirdness in an otherwise much more relaxing trip.


The roads and highways are 95% ok on the major and even secondary routes. A few are pretty rough, but most were quite good for 2 lane shoulder-less roads. If a road was good, it was pretty much all good. The two bad ones we found were pretty much all bad from start to finish and you knew it was going to be slow going for a while and could have been avoided.

This region is called the Banat and is about as flat as the plains of Hungary. We stayed in Timisoara for the night and this is the one town that felt a tiny bit dicey. Nothing we could put our finger on. I think it's that it's not geared for tourism yet, so we stood out here in a way we didn't anywhere else on the trip. Not that Romania itself is a hotspot in general, but Timisoara is well off the usual path. Yet, there is so much potential here. To Romanians, it is the city of flowers. This was a Habsburg city and some of the piatas show how great the town can be again. There's an Eiffel-designed bridge in town. It's horizontally striped Metropolitan Cathedral in deep red and orange is just so striking standing at the end of Piata Victoriei, a very long, bustling square with the Opera house at the opposite end. Umm, there's a McDonalds here too. Anyway. Standing on height at the top of the stairs, a line of people stream into the cathedral. We entered and slipped into a corner and watched each person walk up the rug to the priest for a blessing. No pews in this cathedral, but fascinating geometric painted patterns everywhere. Later we watched the priests swing the incense in a ritual that no one else was there to see.

When I step out on the Cathedral landing and was looking across the square, I was thinking about how much fairly recent history occurred in this square. This was where the local priest sparked the revolution of 89. The protestors were shot on these steps. Cafes line the walks where tanks had been just 15 years ago. Really something. Timisoarans are very proud of this history and memorials and street names reflect this everywhere.

It was also in this square that our first AND second pickpocket attempts occurred. They weren't even close though. I give the attempts a 4 and 2, respectively.

Higher up in the town is the Piata Unirii. By the way, the "t" in Piata is one that has a "tail" on it. I'm sure there's a proper name for this letter, but... it sounds like a "tz", making piata pronounced like the Italian "piazza". There'll be a quiz... Piata Unirii is a perfectly square plaza lined with a variety of regal Baroque buildings in search of a little care. I suspect this will someday be one of the most loved public spaces. Right now, age has sort of lent a mystique to the place, especially at dusk when we were there. Opposite each other on this square are the Catholic Church and Serbian Orthodox Church. One of my favorite buildings of the trip was also here. Just such a whimisical facade on it.

We stayed at the Hotel Banatul. Well, it was very clean and the bed was comfortable and right around the corner from Piata Victoriei. Have to admit that it was very basic and somewhat dreary. Think furnishings and bathroom doors made of plywood. But very nicely painted plywood in teal! High ceilings, big room, the shower was good and there was a Tv and a fridge. For a night it was ok. Paid 1300000 lei for the night. Get used to these big numbers! It was $42. Mo credit card accepted, but three atms on the block.

We ate outside at Lloyd, a restaurant in Piata Victoriei. It was a really nice night, just a heavy shirt or sweater was enough. For the life of me, I can't remember what my wife had but I remember I had a chicken schnitzel with mushroon side items and serbian rise that it wasn't bad. They had one pair of english menus in the place. What I do recall is that I tried the local lager called Timisorean that was very good. Much better than Urqell. Had crepes for dessert and paid approx $22 for 2. This was to become a pattern, except for a switch to bottles of good Romanian wine at $4-5 per 750mL bottle.

Come morning, we caught some early light for photos. We moved on southeast through Lugoj (a very pretty town along a small river) and Caransebes on a fairly rough highway, due to trucks, and headed into the Retezat Mountains and through the Iron Gates of Transylvania.

Next up: The Roman ruins at Sarmizegetusa, the church of Densus and Corvinus Castle at Hunedoara. But first, sleep.
Clifton is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 04:33 AM
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I just realized that you all posted last night. Middle of the night and I figured no one would have been up reading all this. I ran out of steam.

Thanks for the kind words and that someone doesn't mind a long ramble.

Marilyn, you have been everywhere! I'm curious too how much must have changed in that time. Think of amount of history that past right in between. I bet a lot of it though has hardly changed a bit.

Will shoot for more tonight.
Clifton is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 04:50 AM
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Thanks for posting, Clifton.

Verrrryyy interesting.
ira is online now  
Dec 1st, 2004, 05:20 AM
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What a fascinating report, Clifton. Thanks for all the time you're putting into it.

This may sound like a very pedestrian comment, but I do appreciate the paragraph breaks! It makes reading so much easier!
Judy_in_Calgary is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 07:45 AM
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Love the report, fascinating! Looking forward to more
TexasAggie is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 09:08 AM
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GREAT report, Clifton! For a beginner, you're a natural!
StCirq is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 09:35 AM
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Clifton, I hope to visit Romania someday, and I'm hanging on your every word. I look forward to reading more soon.
P_M is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 10:20 AM
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You tell a great story. Can't wait for the rest. Oh well, back to work....
palette is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 10:45 AM
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Clifton, I am at work (travel agency)
and eventhough I'm quite hungry.. I read all thtough it !
You see here in Mexico it is difficult to get info for these countries so... thank you thank you ! what a report !!
olga88 is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 04:28 PM
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Aw, well. Thanks, glad you all are enjoying it. Here comes another one.

Going through the Retezat Mountains is a very pretty drive but not as dramatic as other ranges we went through later. The roadway runs through a valley once you cross a low pass called the Iron Gates of Transylvania and is surrounded by meadows and forested hills. And haystacks. It was harvest time and everywhere you looked throughout Romania, people are working by hand, horse and plow in the fields. Tall, old fashioned haystacks and corn stalk stacks abound throughout the countryside, each stacked around a make shift pole and braced by carefully placed branches. They dot the horizon everywhere. Horse carts are piled high with hay; corn stalks; women in head scarves and goulashes; men in hats, kids in Adidas. Workers along the roads carry wooden rakes and scythes. There are tractors here and there, more the exception than the rule. In many towns, you see a Polizia sign in the middle of town and sure enough, standing on the side of the road, next to the sign, is a uniformed officer. To top it off these drives, the autumn colors were still in much of their glory throughout the country, with only a few bare species. Yellows and oranges covered the hills and mixed with the evergreens, with only the reds past their prime. I bet a week to two earlier would be fantastic.

If there were ever iron in the Iron Gates, we didn't see it now. Whether it was at one time literal, I don't know. It was, from reading, a choke point of defense against the many waves of invaders over the years. From this point, we rolled down into the valley looking for the ruins. We crossed into and back out of the small town called Sarmizegetusa and pulled over, trying to figure out where we went wrong as there is only the one road. Doubled back to ask the officer when we spied the site right across from him. There's not a lot left in the way of marble and columns, but the foundations of the buildings and amphitheater remain. It was a site built by the Romans after defeating the Dacians who had a settlement of the same name just up the road. The Roman way of establishing their presence. They left a last impression here that remains in the language. Further, there are a number of statues of Romulus and Remus and the shewolf we saw displayed in various cities. If I recall correctly, there is a column in Rome that Trajan erected to commemorate the victory and the creation of Sarmizegetusa. Best of all, it's a great place to get out and stretch the legs, absorb the scenery and history and there's no admission charge.

Just up the highway and down a side road a few miles is the church of Densus. Unfortunately we found it in shored up with wooden beams and in scaffolding, it's interior closed for repairs. This church is such an anomoly, it's nice to see that it's being preserved. It's down at the end of a lane in a small village, with the caretaker's farmhouse right next door.

For those not familiar, this is an ancient church built simply without plans and I'd guess without a budget. It's built from whatever the local builders could find. Amazingly, what they found in medieval times was what the Romans left behind at Sarmizegetusa. It's such an oddity, but fascinating. As you walk around it, you see red brick, giant stone granite blocks and river stone all sort of meshed together in the walls. But most amazing, as you peer closer, is you see roman inscriptions on marble turned any which way, built right in with the rest. Several Roman artifacts lie around, including one deeply inscribed tablet leaning up against a transylvanian style lookout tower in the church yard. No two windows in the church are alike. The steeple bulges in odd spots. I'd have liked to have gone in to see the bones in the floor.

When we got there, a bus had just pulled up. Not a tour bus, but a bunch of Romanian kids of about 8 to 10 years old on a field trip. It was fun to watch them getting the pent-up road energy out, one teacher pleading for order "Va rog, VA ROG" (please, please) with little success. It's always good to have a stern 2nd along, and they did. An apparently retired drill instructor of a woman who had them lined up in seconds once she shouted a single command. Cool trick. The kids seemed to be enjoying the visit and the church caretaker helped each to light a candle in the Morti box out front. (these are in front of every church). They tried to talk to us, the poor folk who could only say "Nu inteleg Romaneste". But they talked anyway, me showing the camera when asked and my wife in the midst of the swarm. Nice kids. Then came the puppies up from the farmhouse. This took time and my wife picked her favorite who warmed quickly to her as well. As the kids filed down the hill, the woman who is caretaker and we stood and had a conversation in bits and pieces, mostly in gestures about the trouble that puppies always are.
Clifton is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 04:45 PM
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Hunedoara and the Corvinus Castle
We stopped in Hateg, a boxy town with lots of communist influence, to get gas and moved on. Use one of the pumps that don't say diesel, unless of course, the car takes diesel. In other words, it was easy to figure out the difference. Modern gas stations with little convenience stores for soda and snacks are frequently available and the gas is cheaper than in Hungary by about 10-15%. Petrom stations are common. But again, no credit cards without a pin, which ours didn't have. Just as well.

We moved on north into Hunedoara. The south approach into town showed your average Romanian town. A bit down but overall, it was fine. The more common approach from the north, which was our departure route, is heavily industrial and not at all attractive. But this was a major destination in our plans, a must see for me. As we wound through the town, my wife spotted the castle before I did, in between houses. "whoa, is that it?"

This castle is something I don't know how to begin to describe in enough dimensions. It's huge and gothic and intact, sans furnishings. As you approach and especially as you pull through the gates into the parking lot in front, it just keeps getting bigger and more ominous. I've seen quite a few names for this 14th century castle: Corvin, Corvinus, Hunedoara, Hunyadi, Hunezadi, Castelul Huniazilor. It was the ancestral home of Ioan Hunyadi and his son, Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary. Vlad Tepes' (Dracula) brother was said to have been walled up within this castle as Corvinus was at times benefactor or enemy of the Tepes. There is a very small museum of artifacts housed inside. There were only us and a French couple touring the castle at the time, so it was quiet other than a xylophone player in one wing and an accompanying violinist playing in the great hall in another.

As I said, I can't describe how overwhelming the castle is, so a picture may do more justice.

http://www.travelisfatal.com/ro/Hunedoara Top row, third picture from the left

It's not a great picture, as the sun is almost never where you want it, but the arch doorway you can just see at the top of the ramp is about 15 feet high. This place is impressive in dimension, but you've probably got that by now. The portion of the "castle" in City Park in Budapest was modeled after the real deal here. The rest are other views.

Admission was 40000 lei. 78 cents, US. A bargain at any price.

While this was a very long day, we'd awoke early (and we're not morning people) and were up almost at sunrise. So we still had daylight on our side and headed for Sibiu, with a quick spin through the villages of the Marginimea Sibiului.
Clifton is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 04:46 PM
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Great report, Clifton. Will you be posting pictures?
Jocelyn_P is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 04:48 PM
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Duh. I skipped over your last post. Thanks for the links!
Jocelyn_P is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 04:55 PM
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Good point! Actually, I guess I ought to go ahead and post the addresses instead of bits at a time, eh?

So here goes:


Romania: http://www.travelisfatal.com/ro/

Hungary: http://www.travelisfatal.com/hu/

I put a map up to show the route we took in each country and the links next to the map are the individual photo galleries. Yes, we got carried away, but be greatful that this is only about a quarter of the total number we took.
Clifton is offline  
Dec 1st, 2004, 05:05 PM
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I see from your route map that you left out Bucharest. Was that purposeful, or did it just not work out logistically?
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