Marvellous Marrakech – I’ll leave that up to you!

Having had a wonderful experience in Cape Town during January we thought we’d flip Africa and head North to visit the increasingly popular city of Marvellous Marrakech in mid­­-April.

Why is Marrakech so popular? Apart from being only a 3-4 hour flight from the UK it’s a completely different continent and a feast for the senses, from the bustling Jamaa el-Fnaa square to the intricate tilework and fragrant spices of the souks. It’s a city where you are surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of day to day North African life, which may take you some time to acclimatise to. Marrakech immerses you in a truly cultural experience and is a city which poetic analogies compare to “a drum that beats an African identity into the complex soul of Morocco.”

From medieval times until around the beginning of the 20th century, the entire country of Morocco was known as the “Kingdom of Marrakech”, as the historic capital city was often Marrakech. Even today the name used for Morocco is still Marrakech in Persian, Urdu and many other languages.

Marrakech is also known by a variety of nicknames, including the “Red City”, the “Ochre City” and “the Daughter of the Desert”, mainly because of the colours of the buildings and ramparts of beaten clay which were built during the residence of the Almohads.

In 1985 the ancient section of the city, known as the Medina, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As you take your first steps into the city, you feel the hustle and bustle of Marrakech with an energy all of its own. You get to the heart of things by winding your way through the extremely busy Medina, the walled, historic neighbourhood where it’s easy to get lost and disoriented! But it’s real fun once you relax and realise you’re not at risk.

The Video

It can be a bit intense, but while there you can fully immerse yourself browsing through the souks for local wares, taking in the Moorish architecture and filling up on street food. At the slower end of things, places like Le Jardin Secret, Bahia Palace, and the famed Jardin Majorelle give some breathing space alongside stunning scenery. Or you can always relax at one of Marrakech’s many luxury spas or ‘hammams’.

Marrakech is also famous for its parks, especially the Menara Olive Grove and the walled 1,000 acre Agdal Gardens. An irrigation system built under the Almoravids is still used today to water the city’s gardens.

Red city walls of Marrakech
Red city walls of Marrakech

Do females need to cover up in Marrakech?

While female travellers aren’t expected to dress as conservatively as local women, it’s still a good idea to pack clothing options that will allow you to cover up at appropriate times. In the Medina you can get away with wearing trousers or a skirt that reaches below the knee and a short-sleeved t-shirt, You will see a variation in dress code with some tourists wearing more revealing outfits but better to err on the side of safety.

Accommodation

Iberostar Club Palmeraie Marrakech

Iberostar Palmerie Hotel Reception
Iberostar Palmerie Hotel Reception

We stayed at the Iberostar Club Palmerie. This is a palm oasis with over 100,000 palm trees planted during the Almoravid Empire in the 11th century, the area is filled with natural beautiful and vast gardens. It’s just 15/20 minutes from the historic centre of the city and the hotel provides a great courtesy bus service, although bizarrely the location of the bus drop off and pick up is a good 15 minute walk to the Medina along a route which can be dusty and hot. The hotel is designed in true Moroccan style, with three swimming pools (one adult only) and a Star Camp for kids entertainment with a huge number of activities. The hotel spa features a Turkish bath, massages and treatments, while football, volleyball, spin classes, tennis, table tennis, pétanque, archery, badminton and basketball are all available within the stunning gardens. The hotel staff work tirelessly at cleaning internal areas, keeping grounds spotless and gardens immaculate, and should be commended.

The adult only pool at the Iberostar Palmerie
The adult only pool at the Iberostar Palmerie

The hotel food is buffet style but of high quality and if you stay a week you could easily have a different meal each evening. Lunches in particular are fantastic and became my favourite meal of the day, a wide choice of tasty salads and Moroccan vegetables cooked in the tagine along with fish and a daily BBQ option. Drinks are available aplenty and, apart from the wine and the beer, are French sourced which is not bad at all! I didn’t try one but other guests commented that the cocktails were quite sweet. The house red, white and rose wine is ‘KSAR’ which I cover later and is average, the rose being the most drinkable.

The hotel’s green credentials are impressive with no plastic bottles, filtered water stations strategically placed throughout, and stringent recycling policies.

Hicham is the mixologist at the Zen Bar next to the adult only pool. His service is excellent and he’ll teach you Arabic sayings while he tends to your drinks. Ismail a waiter in the main bar is at the top of his game, he also likes to throw in some Arabic sayings while serving you. Khalid a young waiter at the outside seating area of the main restaurant went out of his way to ensure we had a table for two each evening.

My only disappointment about the hotel is their speciality restaurant, Jawhara which is anything but special! It offers a set 5 course Moroccan taster menu which includes a choice of beef or fish tagine ordered in advance. The standard of food is poor and I didn’t finish a single course. In fact with the soup and vegetable tart starter one taste was enough to down my cutlery. Something’s not right when the standard of the regular buffet restaurant is far superior. I don’t think I’m alone in this opinion.

The Jawhara experience was so bad it made us laugh and despite that I would absolutely recommend the hotel and the staff who work tirelessly to make your stay very enjoyable.

Language Barrier

Morocco’s two official languages are Arabic and Amazigh, but virtually all Moroccans speak French. Spanish is also spoken as I was getting my ‘gracias’ mixed up with my ‘merci’ and still managed to get a reply! It may feel a challenge but attempting a little spoken word, although it may not mean much to you, believe me goes a long way with the locals.

Here are nine words or short phrases passed on by Hicham that may help you get by in Marrakech:

Afak is the Derija word for please. One way I used this word was to simply point at a bottle of water and say ”head, afak”. This translates as ”this, please”.

Fayn is the word for where. You can use it for example to ask for the toilets – “Fayn al toilet afak?” or “Where is the bathroom, please?”.

Shukran is the word for thank you and which I used daily to thank waiting staff in the restaurant and bars. Moroccans greatly value when foreigners speak their language and using this expression will definitely make them smile.

Ech Hal or Bech Hal is used to say “How much?” when you want to buy something.

Smeetee literally means “My name is…” so could be used when meeting someone for the first time.

Shno smeetek? translates as “What is your name?” so after telling people your own name is the next best thing to ask them.

Anta tahdar al engleezeeya? translates as “Do you speak English?”

B’Saha means cheers or literally good health (like ‘sante’ in French or ‘slanj’ in Gaelic).

Trips, Adventures and Restaurants

Private Walking and Shopping tour in the Souks of Marrakech

As the alleyways and dark passages of the Souks can be intimidating we hired a tour guide for a couple of hours to show us around. We met our guide Hussein outside the Cafe du France, a landmark which was easy to find in Jemaa el-Fnaa Square. Hussein was welcoming, friendly and spoke several languages including very good English. Our walk starting to the North of the Souks where Hussein explained the different neighbourhoods,  communities etc. At a brisk pace he took us down lots of tiny alleys with twists and turns that would easily confuse and render us lost without him. Our first stop was at the Herboristerie Le 35 Épices which was an impressive herb, spice and cosmetic wholesaler. The main product on sale was argan oil and after a brief demo of the production process we were shown a large range of merchandise for sale and offered a delicious mint tea. A small purchase and off we set again through the alleys deep in the Souk taking in the interesting aromas, mostly of the pleasant variety!

Madrasa Ben Youssef
Madrasa Ben Youssef

Our next stop was the ‘Gem of Marrakech’ according to Hussein. The Madrasa Ben Youssef is an architectural treasure constructed by Sultan Abdullah Al-Ghaleb Assaadi between the years 1564 and 1565 and is of invaluable historical significance. Wandering within its walls takes you to a fascinating era where art, knowledge, and culture flourish. After a couple of great photo opportunities and a wealth of knowledge imparted by Hussein we continued our tour, this time visiting the tannery, blacksmiths and silversmiths. Some of the compact, centuries old workshops were eye opening, as were the skills of the master tradesmen. A real step back in time.

We then headed to the Souk des Teinturiers where the dying process for wool and silks with natural materials was explained. The colourful bundles of wool drying above the stalls was really impressive. A quick display of how to wear the head scarfs with me as the ‘dummy’ created real entertainment!

Dyedwool-drying
Dyed wool drying in the open air above the souk

Next up was the Place des Épices with all its pungent spice stalls plus some strange objects – allegedly fish eggs floating in water trays. A real feast for the senses with every trader enticing you to buy.

Olives&preserved
Olives and preserved fruit in abundance
Mustapha's famous oven cooked lamb
Mustapha’s famous oven cooked lamb

Mustapha, a local celebrity, is hard at work with his famous oven-cooked lamb, made famous by Gordon, Fred, and Gino on their Marrakech tour.

The tour was a great way to see and learn from an astute guide, it was far more than just shopping and walking, it was entertaining, insightful and really not to be missed. Plus you could relax knowing you didn’t have to find your way out of the maze of Souks. Thanks to Hussein for his knowledge and time, recommended to get your bearings in the Souks.

After leaving Hussein, we had a delicious lunch in Cafe des Épices followed by mint tea. Even in the heat of Marvellous Marrakech the hot mint tea was outstanding and highly recommended.

Atlas Mountains
3 Valleys & Waterfalls Hike plus Camel ride

Atlas Mountain village view from Imlil village
Atlas Mountain village view from Imlil village

This trip came recommended and we were not let down. A day and an experience to remember with thanks to our hiking guide Rachid and driver Omar. Some great views and some sombre ones too due to the destruction from the recent earthquake, very prevalent in every village we passed through. Omar was our driver and the knowledge he imparted of the area, the Berber culture and its history was excellent. He is open and hospitable which helped make the day trip one to remember. At a short stop at an artisan shop just outside of Tahannaout, which is known for its Jewish cemetery and being the first Berber speaking town after Marrakech, the shop owner provided a brief history of the town and surrounding villages followed by a tour of his shop. Then we were off to the Tighanimine Fairtrade Argan Oil Cooperative. Here we had a traditional breakfast of local bread, olive oil, argan oil, rosemary honey, and argan paste (mix of Argan oil and almonds) with herbal tea which was sweet but tasty. Again after a sales pitch on the various products we had a quick walk round and made a few purchases for gifts etc. Back on the road we headed towards the village of Imlil for our hike into the mountains. On route we drove through a very busy market in the town of Asni which was a real sight with bustling market stalls and traders bargaining with locals.

After what can best be described as a sometimes uncomfortable drive due to the earthquake, Omar introduced us to our guide Rachid. We started off our hike at pace on paths, some of which were still badly damaged from the earthquake. The first thing we noticed was the snow still on the mountains and how unbelievably fresh and clean the air was, just brilliant after the hustle and bustle of the Medina in Marrakech. Rachid kept us on track and paid particular attention at potentially hazardous points, all the while imparting his intriguing local knowledge. He guided us up the rocky mountain with impressive views on the way of Jebel Toubkal which is North Africa’s highest mountain. The footpath mostly follows the incredible engineered irrigation system until we arrived at the absolutely stunning waterfalls. Here Rachid took charge of our camera and snapped several great photos which will serve to enhance our memory of the day. One thing to note is that the site can be busy with other tourists but all have a local guide directing them and preventing congestion.

Waterfalls near Imlil village
The impressive waterfalls near Imlil village

After a short break taking in the fabulous sight of the waterfalls we started our decent to the village and on our way even managed to bump into Rachid’s mother and aunt who were on their way to pay respects to a lady in a neighbouring village. Rachid explained the strong relationships that exist across villages and highlighted that even now there are many families still living in tents near to where their houses stood pre-earthquake. He suggested that central government emergency assistance for remote areas was often difficult to obtain.

Suddenly out of the trees a large Atlas Mountain monkey appeared. Rachid explained this was very unusual and it certainly caused a bit of a commotion with several locals emerging from their houses to catch a glimpse.

Rachid seems to know everybody in the village and we were accompanied on the last stage of our walk by a host of primary school kids on their way home from school.

Lunch at a village restaurant was just delicious. Our starter of fresh salad and spiced couscous, accompanied with locally baked bread was great. This was followed by a main of chicken tagine which was simple but very tasty and highly recommended. The food and the mountain views from the roof top terrace just finished off our hike perfectly and so reasonably priced as well at less than £12 in total.

On our way home and fighting our inner concerns for animal welfare we stopped for a short camel ride. This was testing and interesting at the same time. Getting on and more particularly getting off is the challenge. Despite very sweaty hands holding the bar I managed not to embarrass myself …. just!! Something else ticked off the list but I won’t be hurrying back for a repeat of experience.

My Moroccan Camel
My Moroccan Camel

I can honestly say thanks to Rachid, the 90 minute walk was one of the highlights of our trip to Marrakech, the scenery and photographic opportunities were just incredible and not easy to do justice on an iPhone!

A trip which can only be highly recommend and certainly made what it was by Rachid and Omar, thank you guys you do your villages proud!

KSAR Moroccan Wine

Not expecting to find Moroccan wine produced 300 miles from Marrakech we were introduced to KSAR in our hotel. I suppose it is almost inevitable that a former colony of both Rome and France would end up producing wine at some point. KSAR is produced near the inland town of Meknès in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and belongs to the Les Celliers de Meknès group, the best-known and probably the largest wine producer in Morocco. Investing early in planting Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes while ageing its product in oak barrels was a first in the country. A wide range of red, white and rosé wines are produced by Les Celliers des Meknès and exported under brands such as Château Roslane, Domaine Riad Jamil and KSAR. Having witnessed the landscape of the Atlas Mountains I’m sure the soil and weather is perfect for wine production.

Sampling both KSAR red and rose at the hotel, I far preferred the rose which is dry and drinkable. Although it must be said the red and white KSAR wines were being sampled just as much by others in the hotel. I’m sure other Celliers des Meknès wines will be good but a lack of availability of the wider range in our hotel restricted any tasting opportunities.

The drinkable KSAR Rose wine
The drinkable KSAR Rose wine

Rabha Kedima Spice Square

CafeÉpices- roof-terrace
Looking towards the Cafe Épices roof terrace

Café des Épices is a world-renowned cafe restaurant that attracts people from all over the world and is situated in the middle of the famous ‘Place des Épices’. After one of our wanders through the souks we were lucky to secure a table for an early lunch while watching the busy wicker and spice market stall holders trade their wares and the Henna tattoo ladies bargaining with customers. From my time observing and learning, I’d clearly stick to a price between 33 and 50% of what the vendors first ask!

Épices wicker hats
Vendors even sell the Café des Épices wicker hats while you dine

We couldn’t get upstairs to the terrace as it was already full but I’m told that on a clear day you get a perfect and breathtaking view towards the Atlas Mountains, to complete your experience you sit at low tables on Berber cushions. Pre-booking or waiting a long time on a terrace table is the norm!

Our lunch consisted of aish burrito and a kefta morrocan sandwich, just fabulous with the harissa and mint flavours almost jumping out at you. As with the vast majority of places in Marrakech, there is no alcohol on sale within the cafe. We tried their famous mint tea which really lived up to its star status. Poured with true Moroccan style by our waiter it was a spectacle too. What a wonderful lazy lunch in the middle of a chaotic spice market.

The art of pouring Moroccan mint tea
The art of pouring Moroccan mint tea

So if you are on a visit to Marrakech, make a visit to Cafe des Épices as I can assure you will find the food very tasty and the views a bit chaotic but entertaining.

La Pergola
7/8, Riad Zitoun Lakdim

The rooftop La Pergola is a jazz bar and restaurant located on the terraces of the famous Riad Monceau.

Jazz Band playing on the ground floor of La Pergola
Jazz Band playing on the ground floor of La Pergola

It is easy to find, as we established, and situated only 100 meters from Jemaa El Fna Square. We had a booking for dinner but went early to find its location. Literally stumbling upon the entrance situated down an alley we went in for a drink just to give us the feel of the place. From entering the reception area it was very impressive. An ideal place to enjoy a pre-dinner drink on the terrace or at the bar.

The jazz band were already playing which gave the place a good atmosphere, hard to believe that outside the Riad walls there was the hustle and bustle of the busy Medina. Just sitting in partial sun on the rooftop listening to the live jazz music three floors down in the courtyard was really chilling.

We finished our drinks and had a quick wander round the Souks and Jemaa El Fna Square before returning for our 1900 table reservation. What a transformation the whole place was packed but relaxed still due to the sound of the jazz band.

Walking through the ground floor restaurant of Le Bistro Arabe, which is slightly more refined dining, we then climbed the steep marble steps for our evening meal at La Pergola. In comparison to earlier it was very busy and our fabulous waiter (unfortunately didn’t catch his name) told us the rooftop is generally full days in advance, he recommended booking as early as possible if we wanted to revisit before we returned home.

Morrocan Chateau Raslane
A very nice Morrocan Chateau Raslane

We ordered a bottle of Chateau Raslane from Les Coteaux De L’Atlas which raised my expectations of Moroccan wine.

It was a very nice accompaniment to our delicious lamb nabrik starter stuffed with grilled almonds and goats cheese. It was a large starter so thankfully we opted to share.

The ‘special’ of Moroccan tapas also looked delicious and described as XXL it certainly lived up to its label, so can really only be shared. Our mains of fish & bakchich and crying beef kofta are signature dishes and excellent. The crying kofta comes with a chilli warning but is not too hot, just perfect.

We finished our evening off with a lovely Moroccan mint tea known for its digestive benefits. No wonder the menu is authorised by chef Abdel Alaoui, creator of the Choukran restaurants in Paris, it is magical Moroccan. Highly recommended for its delicious local food or a jazzy pre-dinner cocktail. It has a real warm ambiance, very friendly staff and is a Marrakech culinary experience not to be missed.

Jardin Majorelle

Yves Saint Laurent memori
Yves Saint Laurent memori

A visit to the Jardin Majorelle on Rue Yves Saint Laurent was recommended to us by Tony Reid. With the weather forecast to be 30 degrees plus we were thankful to secure an early morning booking. This was a very good move as it got extremely busy when we were leaving the gardens later in the morning. Even at 0830 it was difficult to take a photo without some random tourist making a cameo appearance. On entering a small gateway the gardens open up in front of you. The peaceful atmosphere initially takes a bit to comprehend since you have just left busy city streets with no hint of the beautiful gardens behind the wall. They are impressive and boast a variety of water features, plants, trees and cactus from all over the world.

catus and palm trees within the gardens.
A sneeky view through the catus towards the palm trees within the gardens.

Everything was impeccably maintained and the clever use of colour (majorelle blue and yellow) really enhances the gardens. Truly a hidden gem and remarkable that such a peaceful and beautiful place can be situated in the city. A great experience, which is recommended and certainly one of the best urban gardens we have visited.

Cafe Bacha

Replica Bacha
Replica Bacha Coffee sign

The story of Bacha Coffee begins in 1910 in the Medina of Marrakech. The spectacular Dar el Bacha Palace, which means “House of the Pasha”, brought together the greatest cultural and political minds of the century over glittering pots of “coffee of Arabia” or Arabica as it is known today.

After being closed for 60 years, Bacha Coffee recently reopened to reignite its tradition of offering fine 100% Arabica coffees from around the world and now has locations as far afield as Taiwan, Qatar, Singapore and of course, France.

After our early morning visit to the Majorelle Gardens we caught a taxi to Cafe Bacha which is located in the Confluence Museum and opens at 1000. We had no choice but to wait 40 minutes on it opening as a queue had already formed. Once inside you pay 10 Moroccan dirham each just to gain access to the coffee shop but this doesn’t guarantee a seat due to how popular it is. It’s important to note that only cash is accepted so be sure to have this on hand. Also I suggest to get ahead of the crowds, it’s best to arrive around 0915 as the queue forms quickly. We were near the front so managed to get straight into the coffee shop. It was worth the wait and offers a truly memorable experience with a massive selection of coffees sourced from all over the world. This caused me a problem as reading the menu I wanted to try them all. I chose a medium strength coffee from Surabaya, Indonesia. We had the set continental breakfast menu – two delicious French bread rolls, homemade jams and local butter. The orange juice was so fresh it tantalised our taste buds. This was followed by a very light and tasty almond croissant and a raspberry & cinnamon croissant. Great accompaniments to terrific coffee. Hot breakfast options such as omelettes are also available and the display of cakes and treats looks fantastic. The service was impeccable, incredibly polite and knowledgeable staff provide recommendations to guests on their choice of coffee.

Marvellous Marrakesh Splendors
Marvellous Marrakesh Splendors

The ambiance in the Cafe is stunning, with beautiful decor that cannot be done justice in photos. The cedar carved doors are simply stunning. Again another Moroccan treat hidden behind closed doors. The entrance is so insignificant you would simply walk by if you weren’t aware what grandeur and treats lie within. 

Travel and Transport

Travel and transport in and around Marrakech is a challenge and very stressful. Our experience was not good but I will come back to that later.

Getting around the Medina in Marrakech is really only done by walking. Most of the historic centre’s streets are so narrow that only pedal cycles, mopeds and motorbikes can gain access to this part of the city. It can be nerve wracking and you need eyes in the back of your head to keep a watch out for the bikes and scooters as they drive at unbelievable speed despite the crowds.

I thought of my scouting days when told that orienteering through the souks is a little tricky, however it can be totally disorienting, there are no maps and guide books often have different street names from the nameplates on the walls of the souks making it even more confusing. If you ask a local for directions it’s mostly customary for them to accompany you and then blatantly ask for a tip, which they will most likely say is not enough, or they’ll take you somewhere different, so not recommended.

I suggest taking a photo of google maps on your phone or asking for guidance from the reception staff in your accommodation before starting out rather than walking about with your phone in hand. It’s a challenge but a good one and to be honest a safe one. Avoiding the sales pitch from the stall holders can a bit wearing but a polite ‘no thank you’ and quickly moving on usually works.

The local buses in Marrakech are very old and are usually packed with people, so I would recommend avoiding them and use hotel courtesy buses or take a taxi instead and if close, go by foot.

If available, I firmly suggest using your hotel courtesy bus where possible. By far the safest option from the maniac driving and drivers who think nothing of texting while they drive at speed through the narrow streets and markets. To be honest our taxi experiences on occasion brought a really stressful end to what should have been magical Moroccan evenings.

Taxis

Two kinds of taxis exist in Marrakech: small ones called “petit taxis” and the big taxi called “grand taxi”. The smaller taxis are used in the city centre while the larger ones are for far-away excursions. Taxis in Marrakech have meters, but unless you remind the driver they don’t activate it. Unless you have pre-agreed a fare make sure they switch it on before you get in, if they refuse, just find another taxi. I suggest you always negotiate and agree a fare for the journey with the driver before the engine starts.

To get around the centre of Marrakech it will cost between 30 Dirham (£2.50) and 50 Dirham (£4) but be aware it can be a nerve-wracking journey. Taxi drivers are very happy to be hired for a whole day and will visit other areas even a few hours drive from Marrakech.

Horse-drawn carriages in Marrakech

This is one of the most traditional ways of getting around the city, a nice to do but again my inner conscious in respect of animal welfare got the better of me and this time I avoided it. The horse drawn carriages are plentiful throughout the city.

Marvellous Marrakech – Been, seen and will struggle to return!

As I view the sun setting behind the beautifully manicured palm trees in the gardens of the Iberostar Palmerie, I wonder if I will ever visit what is an intriguing city again. Several experiences have been wonderful and are highlighted in the review. However, there are a few safety concerns worthy of highlight.

From our first steps through the arrival doors at Marrakech Airport and into a very unsavoury interaction with the taxi manager I have not really felt the love. The aggression shown by this person was quite honestly shocking. He suggested our booking was for 12 hours before the agreed time even though this is tied to a flight number, he demanded my wife’s phone number, refused mine, said our taxi booking which was prepaid with British Airways was invalid and then bumped me with his chest! It was extremely hard to hold back my inner wishes. Only when I suggested we go to the local Police did he back off. Thankfully I have had an initial apology from British Airways who sorted out our return airport transfer but I still await a formal response from BA to my complaint.

The next concern is the manner of driving, mainly by taxi drivers, it is just frightening and totally unsafe in such a busy city. Then there is the constant feeling of being conned or overcharged with every interaction being a negotiation, which leaves such a bad taste and a sad feeling. Yes people have to make money but please don’t exploit what undoubtedly is a good source of income. Once they’re gone, they may be gone for good.

Despite these concerns I would like to thank those named in my blog and the other hotel staff, tour guides, and restaurant staff in places we visited for doing their utmost to welcome, accommodate and enhance our stay. On this occasion however one real bad apple certainly ruined the barrel, unfortunately it tainted our first impression of Marrakech.

But never say never again!

On recovery from the devastating earthquake on 8 September 2023 and to the good and honest people of Marrakech, I truly wish you good health and speedy recovery or ‘B’Saha’.

It’s a choice to visit Marrakech, if you do, enjoy it and please sample the best things on offer but look after your personal safety.

Calum Glenny

Gourock’s ‘Avid Traveller’

Culum glenny

 

 

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