Rome: Baroque Brilliance

This second of three shows on Rome reveals a city busy with life and bursting with Baroque. We'll ramble through the venerable heart of Rome, admire breathtaking Bernini statues, ponder sunbeams inside St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, and mix and mingle with the Romans during an early-evening stroll. Following an exquisite Roman dinner, we'll join locals after dark, lacing together the Eternal City's most romantic nightspots.

Travel Details

Spanish Steps

Piazza di Spagna, with the very popular Spanish Steps, is named for the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican, which has been here for 300 years. It's been the hangout of many Romantics over the years (Keats, Wagner, Openshaw, Goethe, and others). In the 1700s, British aristocrats on the "Grand Tour" of Europe came here to ponder Rome's decay. The wide, curving staircase is one of Rome’s iconic sights. Its 138 steps lead sharply up from Piazza di Spagna, forming a butterfly shape as they fan out around a central terrace. The design culminates at the top in an obelisk framed between two Baroque church towers.

Campo de' Fiori

One of Rome’s most colorful spots, this bohemian piazza hosts a fruit and vegetable market in the morning, cafés in the evening, and pub-crawlers at night. In ancient times, the “Field of Flowers” was an open meadow. Later, Christian pilgrims passed through on their way to the Vatican, and a thriving market developed. The square is surrounded by fun eateries, great for people-watching. On weekend nights, when the Campo is packed with beer-drinking kids, the medieval square is transformed into one vast Roman street party.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

This church houses Bernini’s best-known statue, the swooning St. Teresa in Ecstasy. The church, originally a poor Carmelite church, was slathered with Baroque richness in the 17th century. (It's grown popular lately for its part in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons book, something that serious historians scoff at.) At the altar, in the center of the starburst, is an icon of the Virgin Mary, considered miraculous for the military victories attributed to it during the Thirty Years’ War (early 1600s).

Gesù Church

This Baroque church is the headquarters of the Jesuits in Rome, and holds an interesting daily service at 17:30.

Borghese Gardens

Rome’s semi-scruffy three-square-mile "Central Park" is great for its shade and for people-watching plenty of modern-day Romeos and Juliets. The best entrance is at the head of Via Veneto. Rent a bike or, for romantics, a pedaled rickshaw (riscio). Bikes come with locks to allow you to make sightseeing stops. Follow signs to discover the park’s cafés, fountains, statues, lake, great viewpoint over Piazza del Popolo, and prime picnic spots. Some sights require paid admission, including Rome’s zoo, the National Gallery of Modern Art (which holds 19th-century art), and the Etruscan Museum.

Borghese Gallery

This plush museum, filling a cardinal's mansion in the park, was recently restored and offers one of Europe's most sumptuous art experiences. You'll enjoy a collection of world-class Baroque sculpture, including Bernini's David and his excited statue of Apollo chasing Daphne, as well as paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and Rubens. The museum's slick mandatory reservation system keeps the crowds at a manageable size. Reservations are mandatory and easy to get in English by booking online or calling +39-06-328-10 (press 2 for English).

St. Peter's Basilica

There is no doubt: This is the richest and grandest church on earth. To call it vast is like calling Einstein smart. Plaques on the floor show you where other, smaller churches would end if they were placed inside. The ornamental cherubs would dwarf a large man. Birds roost inside, and thousands of people wander about, heads craned heavenward, hardly noticing each other. Don’t miss Michelangelo’s Pietà (behind bulletproof glass) to the right of the entrance. Bernini’s altar work and twisting, towering canopy are brilliant.

St. Peter's Square

Piazza San Pietro, with its ring of columns, symbolizes the arms of the church welcoming everyone — believers and non-believers — with its motherly embrace. The “square” itself is actually elliptical, 660 by 500 feet (roughly the same dimensions as the Colosseum). Though large, it’s designed like a saucer, a little higher around the edges, so that even when full of crowds (as it often is), it allows those on the periphery to see above the throngs. The obelisk in the center is 90 feet of solid granite weighing more than 300 tons. Think how much history this monument has seen. Originally erected in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago, it witnessed the fall of the pharaohs to the Greeks and then to the Romans. Then the emperor Caligula moved it to imperial Rome, where it stood impassively watching the slaughter of Christians at the racecourse and the torture of Protestants by the Inquisition. Today, it watches over the church, a reminder that each civilization builds on the previous ones. The puny cross on top reminds us that Christian culture has cast but a thin veneer over our pagan origins.

On the square are two entrances to Vatican City: one to the left of the facade, and one to the right in the crook of Bernini’s “arm” (the same entrance that hands out pope-viewing tickets). Guarding this small but powerful country’s border crossing are the mercenary guards from Switzerland. You have to wonder if they really know how to use those pikes. Their colorful uniforms are said to have been designed by Michelangelo, though he was not known for his sense of humor.

Vatican Museum

The four miles of displays in this immense museum — from ancient statues to Christian frescoes to modern paintings — culminate in the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo’s glorious Sistine Chapel. This is one of Europe’s top three or four houses of art. It can be exhausting, so plan your visit carefully, focusing on a few themes. Allow two hours for a quick visit, three or four hours for enough time to enjoy it.

Bypass the long ticket lines by reserving an entry time online. It’s easy: You choose your day and time, they email you a confirmation immediately, and you print out the voucher.

Victor Emmanuel Monument

This oversize monument to Italy’s first king, built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the country’s unification in 1861, was part of Italy’s push to overcome the new country’s strong regionalism and create a national identity. The scale of the monument is over-the-top: 200 feet high, 500 feet wide. The 43-foot-long statue of the king on the horse is one of the biggest equestrian statues in the world. The king’s moustache forms an arc five feet long, and a person could sit within the horse’s hoof.

To see the “Vittoriano” (as locals call it) up close, simply climb the front stairs, or go inside from one of several entrances. The little-visited Museum of the Risorgimento fills several floors with displays (well-described in English) on the movement and war that led to the unification of Italy in 1870. A café is at the base of the top colonnade, on the monument’s east side.

Best of all, the monument offers a grand view of the Eternal City. You can climb the stairs to the midway point for a decent view, keep climbing to the base of the colonnade for a better view, or, for the best view, ride the Rome from the Sky (Roma dal Cielo) elevator, which zips you from the top of the stair climb (at the back of the monument) to the rooftop for the grandest, 360-degree view of the center of Rome — even better than from the top of St. Peter’s dome. Once on top, you stand on a terrace between the monument’s two chariots. You can look north up Via del Corso to Piazza del Popolo, west to the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, and south to the Roman Forum and Colosseum. Helpful panoramic diagrams describe the skyline, with powerful binoculars available for zooming in on particular sights. It’s best in late afternoon, when it’s beginning to cool off and Rome glows.

Piazza del Popolo

This vast oval square marks the traditional north entrance to Rome. From ancient times until the advent of trains and airplanes, this was just about any visitor’s first look at Rome. Today the square, known for its symmetrical design and its art-filled churches, is the starting point for the city’s evening passeggiata. The 10-story obelisk in the center of the square once graced the temple of Ramses II in Egypt and the Roman Circus Maximus racetrack. Two large fountains grace the sides of the square — Neptune to the west and Roma to the east (marking the base of Pincio Hill; steps lead up to the overlook with fine views to St. Peter's and the rest of the city).

Francesca Caruso

Francesca loves to teach and share her appreciation of her city, and has contributed generously to my TV shows and guidebooks. Popular with my readers, Francesca understandably books up quickly; if she’s busy, she’ll recommend one of her colleagues.

Ristorante da Fortunato

Ristorante da Fortunato is an Italian classic, with fresh flowers on the tables and white-coated, black-tie career waiters politely serving good meat and fish to politicians, foreign dignitaries, and tourists with good taste. Don’t leave without perusing the photos of their famous visitors — everyone from former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to Bill Clinton seems to have eaten here. All are pictured with the boss, Fortunato, who, since 1975, has been a master of simple edible elegance. (His son Jason is now on the team.) The outdoor seating is fine for watching the river of Roman street life flow by, but the real atmosphere is inside. For a dressy night out, this is a reliable and surprisingly reasonable choice — but be sure to reserve ahead.

Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain shows how Rome took full advantage of the abundance of water brought into the city by its great aqueducts. This fountain celebrated the reopening of several of ancient Rome’s aqueducts in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. After a thousand years of surviving on poor-quality well water, Romans could once again enjoy pure water brought from the distant hills east of the city.

This watery Baroque avalanche by Nicola Salvi was completed in 1762. Salvi used the palace behind the fountain as a theatrical backdrop for the figure of "Ocean," who represents water in every form. The statue surfs through his wet kingdom — with water gushing from 24 spouts and tumbling over 30 different kinds of plants — while Triton blows his conch shell.

The magic of the square is enhanced by the fact that no streets directly approach it. You can hear the excitement as you draw near, and then — bam! — you’re there. The scene is always lively, with lucky Romeos clutching dates while unlucky ones clutch beers.

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we return to a city that for centuries has been a magnet for world travelers. We're in eternally entertaining Rome.

There's history everywhere here in the city of the Caesars. The Colosseum reminds us of ancient pageantry and gladiators. Monuments like Trajan's column boosted imperial egos. Statues show how Emperors were worshipped as gods on earth. And the Pantheon, with my favorite skylight anywhere, inspired future ages to great domes of their own.

But we'll learn about these ancient wonders in another episode. Right now, we're more interested in a different Rome — busy with life and bursting with Baroque.

We'll ramble through the venerable heart of Rome, admire breathtaking Bernini statues, ponder sunbeams inside St. Peter's at the Vatican, and mingle with the Romans over an early-evening stroll. We'll eat really well, and go local after dark, lacing together the eternal city's most romantic night spots.

The old center of Rome is best explored on foot — ideally in the spring or fall. For me, the most exhausting thing about traveling here is the heat of summer. We're here in springtime — much more comfortable.

While much of Rome is splendid and grandiose, it can be intimate as well. Regardless of your sightseeing agenda, getting out early lets you enjoy some of the world's great public spaces while they're just waking up. Early birds can even enjoy the generally packed Pantheon nearly all to themselves.

A morning spent wandering is filled with surprises. Playful fountains decorate squares. Poke around. Explore. In the back streets it's clear; this city is a collection of real neighborhoods — artfully living well in a rustic and ancient shell.

As the rhythm of daily life hits its stride, the famous Spanish Steps — today adorned with azaleas — fill with people. For over 200 years romantics have gathered here to enjoy a little dolce vita with their sightseeing. And it remains a popular place to savor the joy of simply being in Rome.

Another colorful Roman gathering place is the Campo de' Fiori. Literally the "field of flowers," this has long been a fragrant and vibrant market. The market thrives in the morning. What's seasonal during your visit will be a favored by local chefs and featured on their daily menus. We're here in May — and it's punterelle, asparagus, and artichokes.

Whether you come for the produce or just for a stroll, Campo de' Fiori is one of Rome's beloved public spaces.

While Rome's streets and piazzas are busy with people, its countless churches are busy with art. Pop into just about any church and you hardly know where to look. That's because they're decorated in the Baroque style.

Every inch is slathered with ornamentation — oh-wow spiral columns framing scenes that almost come to life; cupids doing flip flops, and ceilings open into the heavens.

After the intellectual nature of the Renaissance, Baroque, which followed, was emotional. By the year 1500, Renaissance artists had mastered realism. Now, around the year 1600, Baroque artists went beyond realism to wow their viewers with exuberance. Baroque art was propaganda. It served the needs of divine monarchs and the Church. By pulling emotional strings, it convinced people to obey.

Rome is the birthplace of the Baroque style and Gian Lorenzo Bernini — who lived and worked here in the 17th century — is considered its father.

Seemingly insignificant churches like Santa Maria della Vittoria come with lavish interiors. And, if you know where to look, important baroque treasures, hide out. Bernini designed this side chapel like a theater — with members of the family who paid for the art looking on from their box seats.

The master Bernini invigorates reality with emotion. Center stage is The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. Bernini captures the feeling Theresa described when the angel pierced her heart with a heavenly arrow: She said, "The pain was so sharp that I cried aloud. But at the same time I experienced such delight that I wished it would last forever."

Exploring Rome on foot, you alternate between peaceful back lanes and busy arterials. Towering above the traffic stands Il Gesù, the leading church of the Jesuit order. It's another church decorated to the hilt in the Baroque style. Take a moment. Put yourself in the mindset of a 17th-century church-goer. Marvel at the splendor.

Once again, this art carried a message. The Catholic Church — threatened by Luther and the Reformation movement — was striking back. Here, this symbol of virtue beats down Protestants. A determined cherub rips pages from a Protestant book. And the angel struggles with the evil serpent of heresy.

Today in Rome, the visitor's struggle is more likely out on the street — with modern traffic. But the notorious Roman traffic is being tamed. Like cities all over Europe, more and more of its old center has become traffic-free and pedestrian-friendly. Still, watch out for the scooters.

After years of searching out my favorite European restaurants, I've found a few universal indicators for a great eating value. And this place has them all.

The best eateries are little family run places that cater to locals. This one's open weekday lunches only. At a glance you know this place is a find — limited selection, hand written menu, in one language, packed with the neighborhood gang. Each day there's a special — today it’s spaghetti carbonara. Simple, tasty cucina casalinga — that's home-cooking Roman style.

For a breezy escape from the big city noise and intensity, head for the Borghese Gardens, Rome's "Central Park." Romans are proud of their generous green spaces. This sprawling park has long offered people here a place to relax, unwind, and let the kids run wild.

The park's centerpiece is the Borghese Gallery. Once a cardinal's lavish mansion, today it welcomes the public.

As is the case for many of Europe's top sights, admission requires a reservation. Getting one is easy — just a phone call or visit the website and you get an entry time. Good guidebooks have all the details.

The wealthy Borghese family filled their 17th-century villa with art. This was the age when the rich and powerful not only collected beautiful art, but actually employed leading artists to spiff up their homes.

Cardinal Borghese was the pope's nephew and one of the wealthiest people in Rome. With unlimited money, his palace dazzled with both fine art of the past, such as Raphael's exquisite Deposition, and with the best art of the day.

Each room has a masterpiece at its center — like this intriguing look at Napoleon's sister, Pauline, by Canova. The polished marble is lifelike — even sensuous.

Bernini's David is textbook Baroque. Bursting with life, David's body — wound like a spring and lips pursed as he prepares to slay the giant — shows the determination of the age. Bernini was just twenty five when he sculpted this — and the face of David is his.

Caravaggio tackled the same topic on canvas. Grabbing an opportunity to shock his viewers, the artist Caravaggio also sneaks in a self-portrait — this time, as the head of Goliath.

In keeping with the Baroque age, Bernini's Rape of Persephone packs an emotional punch. Persephone's entire body seems to scream for help as Pluto drags his catch into the underworld. His three-headed dog howls triumphantly.

Bernini's Apollo Chasing Daphne is a highlight. Apollo — happily wounded by Cupid's arrow — chases Daphne who's saved by turning into a tree. In typical Baroque style, Bernini captures the instant when, just as Apollo's about to catch Daphne, her fingers turn to leaves, her toes sprout roots...and Apollo’s in for one rude surprise.

The statue — as much air as stone — makes a supernatural event seem real. This classical scene — while plenty fleshy — comes with a church-pleasing moral: chasing earthly pleasures leads only to frustration. The place to contemplate that thought is at the Vatican.

Here's a case where crossing a street is crossing a border. We've just left Italy. Vatican City may be the world's smallest independent country — with only a thousand inhabitants, but it's the spiritual capital of hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics.

The Vatican is built upon the memory and grave of the first pope, St. Peter. Its centerpiece — St. Peter’s Basilica.

Even though the Vatican City occupies less than a square mile — this country has its own radio station, newspaper, post office and a cute little train station. Along with the grandest church on earth, it has a massive museum. The Vatican is ruled — both politically and religiously — by the pope.

The Vatican City is embedded in the city of Rome. It's surrounded by a mighty medieval wall that evokes a less than peaceful history.

After the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century, the city of Rome eventually came under control of the pope. In fact for centuries, he was called the "King Pope." Little by little, the "King Pope" built up his own empire. At its peak in the 1600s, these "Papal States" as they were called encompassed much of the Italian peninsula. When the modern nation of Italy unified in the late 1800s, it absorbed most of the Papal States, as well as the city of Rome. But the pope held out.

For sixty years the pope was holed up here, behind the Vatican Walls. Finally, in 1929, the pope and Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty, establishing the Vatican as its own nation. The garden-like core of the country — where serious administration takes place — is closed to the public.

The Vatican "military" is made up of the Swiss Guard. In 1506, the pope imported mercenaries from Switzerland, who were known for their loyalty and courage. Today, about 100 Swiss soldiers — clad in their flamboyant Renaissance-style uniforms — still protect the pope, keep the crush of visitors as orderly as possible, and patiently answer tourists' questions.

Piazza San Pietro sits on what was the site of an ancient Roman racetrack. Imagine chariots making their hairpin turns around that obelisk.

For added entertainment during the games, Christians were executed here. In about 65 A.D., the apostle Peter was crucified within sight of this obelisk. Peter's friends buried him in a nearby graveyard on what pagan Romans called the Vatican Hill.

For 250 years Christians worshipped quietly at his tomb. Then, in 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and changed the course of history. A basilica was built here, and this became the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Twelve hundred years later, the original St. Peter's was replaced by this most glorious church in Christendom. Upon entering, your first impression is: It's huge...600 feet long, bathed in sunbeams. It can accommodate thousands of worshippers. The ornamental cherubs dwarf a large man. As a tour guide, I've lost entire groups in here.

Visitors marvel at grand paintings decorating the many chapels. But they're not paintings at all. Because oil on canvas would soon be covered by candle soot, you won't find actual paintings in St. Peter's. Just the magnificent work of the Vatican school of mosaics — with thousands of different colors in their arsenal of chips.

This scene, showing Peter looking after early Christians, while centuries old, looks almost new.

Michelangelo's Pietà is adored by pilgrims and tourists alike. Here the 25-year-old Michelangelo makes the theological message very clear: Jesus — once alive but now dead — gave his life for our salvation. The contrast provided by Mary's rough robe makes his body — even though carved in hard marble — feel soft and believable.

The high altar, like so much of the art decorating the Vatican, is another masterpiece by Bernini. With sunlight illuminating its alabaster window — as if powering the Holy Spirit, it encrusts the legendary throne of St. Peter with a starburst of Baroque praise.

Directly above the altar which marks the tomb of St. Peter, stands Bernini's bronze canopy, and over that, Michelangelo's dome — taller than a football field on end. The inscription declares, in Latin: Tu es Petrus..."You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church." This is the scriptural basis for the primacy of Rome in the Catholic Church.

A viewing perch gives travelers a close-up look at those huge letters and a heavenly perspective into the church. From the rooftop you can size up the dome you're about to climb. For a close look at Michelangelo's dome-within-a-dome design, climb 300 steps to the cupola.

The view from the top is unrivaled: both of Rome in general...and the Vatican grounds. You can survey the entire country from this perch. The long rectangular building is the Vatican Museum with the adjacent Sistine Chapel — perhaps the richest collection of Western art anywhere.

Over the centuries the popes have amassed enough art to fill eleven miles of Vatican hallways sumptuously decorated with precious tapestries, dramatic frescoes, and ancient statues.

The museum features art from every age. Its exquisite painting gallery includes Raphael's much-loved Transfiguration.

Halls and courtyards are littered with ancient Greek and Roman masterpieces — like the Laocoön...so inspirational to the great masters of the Renaissance. And the pope's apartments tell Christian history — this is the battle in which Emperor Constantine was led by angels and a holy cross both to a key military victory and to his own religious conversion.

And these rooms celebrate pre-Christian philosophy. Here Raphael paints the School of Athens...a who's who of ancient Greek intellectual heroes...many painted with the features of Renaissance greats...Leonardo, Michelangelo...and a self-portrait of Raphael himself.

Of course, there's much more as we've just scratched the surface of this vast collection. If you're pondering eternity, try covering the Vatican Museum thoroughly.

Busy and big as Rome is, getting around is relatively easy.

If time is limited, grabbing a cab is a good budget tip. It's sweat-free, the quickest way from point to point.

Especially for a small group, it can be a fine value. And from the window of the cab we enjoy another lively look at the city. I find Roman cabbies generally honest — but still, count your change. In Rome you simply round up whatever's on the meter.

In 1870 Rome became the capital of the newly united modern state of Italy. Shortly after that, the thunderous Victor Emmanuel Monument was built to honor Italy's first king — that's him on the huge horse. The monument — built to stoke the spirit of a new and struggling nation — harkens back to the glories of ancient Rome. In fact, if you want to envision ancient Rome in its pomposity today, imagine a vast city made of buildings like this.

The square fronting it is where, in the 1930s, Mussolini whipped up Italy's nationalistic fervor ultimately sending a generation of Italian men off to a catastrophic war. And to this day — here on the national altar — burns the eternal flame remembering Italy’s Unknown Soldier.

Riding the elevator to the top of the monument, we enjoy a sweeping view of the eternal city. Many locals love this perch because from here they can see nearly all of their beloved Rome.

Another towering Egyptian obelisk dramatically marks Piazza del Popolo. This is the starting point of a ritual in Rome — the evening stroll, or passeggiata. We're meeting my friend and Roman tour guide, Francesca Caruso, to join in the fun.

As the sun goes down, the people come out. Downtown Rome's main street, the Via del Corso, is pedestrianized and strollers just love it. It offers some of the best people watching anywhere.

Francesca: I think in the end what I really like about the Italian way of life and I can really enjoy it here in Rome is the fact all you have to do is step outside and I'm around people, I never feel lonely, I always feel connected with a sense of community. I think the passeggiata is a wonderful way of living in the city.

Rick: So, this is just sort of an inclination, early evening, cool of the day.

Francesca: Oh yeah. You just go outside, meet your friends, have a gelato, an aperitivo, and just enjoy the city.

Rick: Check out who's with who, who's wearing what.

Francesca: Oh yes, that always you know how the Italians are so aware of themselves and they like to be looked at and they like to look at each other.

For many, the evening stroll leads to a nice dinner out. We're dropping by Ristorante da Fortunato.

I enjoy a range of restaurants. Occasionally I'll splurge in a restaurant like this, where you can let the meal unfold in all its many layers. First antipasti — mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula with shrimp, and artichokes — the last of the season. The wine recommendation: a nice red from Piedmont. Then pasta arrabiata. There's no hurry. When Europeans go out for dinner, it's generally the event of the evening. While pricey, it's fun, once in a while at least, to enjoy a full-blown fine dinner on the road. The food keeps on coming: mushrooms — right in season and really flavorful...beef — rare and tender with a light gravy...and finally blueberries and gelato. This is one splurge I’ll never forget.

After dark, Rome takes on yet another personality. And a short walk laces together its top nightspots. Back at Campo de' Fiori the artichokes and tomatoes are packed away and the social street lamps are turned on.

These characteristic lanes, even late at night, feel safe and friendly.

The nearby Piazza Navona is a carnival 365 nights a year. While this oblong square got its shape from a long‑gone ancient stadium, today, the games are limited to browsing and flirting around its famous Bernini fountain.

Just down the street is the floodlit Pantheon. It looms high above our 21st century, as if aching to tell its story — 2,000 years of Roman history. And at the same time, it provides a venerable backdrop for al fresco diners.

There's too much life in the streets to go home yet. The Trevi Fountain's close by.

This bubbly Baroque avalanche — dating from the 1700s — seems purpose built for today's Roman embrace of life. With history, art, and people perpetually partying under the stars, it's no wonder people come here in droves for the promise that a coin tossed over the shoulder will assure their return to this eternal city. That may sound silly, but every year I go through the ritual...and it works!

But we're not done yet. The final stop on our nighttime walk is back where we started: at the ever-popular Spanish Steps. It’s been the hangout of countless romantics over the years — and, I hope, someday soon, that includes you too.

Rome — of course it’s the city of Caesars, popes, and floodlit fountains. But for over three million people, it's also simply home. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Ciao.

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