Bari located in south eastern Italy, the part we fondly refer to as the heel of the boot, is the second largest city in the region. It is a port city on the Adriatic Sea and the capital of Italy’s Puglia region.
To be honest there isn’t a whole lot to do in Bari, it’s not a major tourist destination. However it is an ideal base for those who want to explore the Puglia and Basilicata regions. It’s a major train hub with trains heading to all the interesting places that one will visit.
But before I get to the trains let me first point out a few places of interest in Bari. The city itself is like any large city filled with modern buildings, roads, and traffic. Not exactly a place of great interest.
Last fall we headed to Bari and used it as our base to explore the surrounding areas. We stayed in the Hi Hotel Bari which is situated in the outskirts of the city. We chose this hotel over those closer to the city center because it was newer and seemed to be in a safer neighborhood. It turned out to be an excellent choice. The room was spacious and came with lots of amenities including a buffet breakfast, in room coffee machine, 24 hour self service coffee and tea in the lobby, and even the use of bicycles.
The only down side to this hotel is the distance to the city center and the train station. It requires a short taxi ride that costs about €10 each way. But since the room is less expensive than those in the hotels in the center of town the cost of the taxi isn’t a big deal. And the friendly staff will happily call you a taxi anytime of day or night.
Anyway the major place of interest in Bari is a visit to the old town which is known as Barivecchia. It’s a quaint little town with narrow winding streets, piazzas, and interesting architecture.
One of the highlights of the old town is the Basilica of San Nicola. San Nicola, or Saint Nicholas, is the patron saint and the protector of Bari. And yes that’s the Saint Nicholas who many of us know as Santa Claus.
The classic Romanesque style Basilica was built in 1197. It houses the bones of San Nicola in the crypt within the church. It has a stunning painted gold ceiling, an amazing altar, and a collection of sculpture and mosaics.
The church holds wide significance throughout Europe and the Christian world. It is a pilgrimage site for both Catholics and Orthodox Christians form eastern Europe.
This church stands proudly in the center of the old town on the harbor side of the citadel. It is definitely worth a visit!
There are other churches in the old town including the less popular Church of San Sabino.
The Bari Castle located west of the old town center. It’s a Norman Castle built in the 1100’s and is in excellent condition with its original walls and towers, and a moat on 3 sides.
You can visit the castle and explore its passages, walk thru the central courtyard, and marvel at its fantastic architecture. There are also rooms where you’ll find artifacts on display, and boards that has some history of the castle.
Its elevated location makes it a great spot to view the city. [spacer height=”-20px”]
In my opinion the best part of Barivecchia is the town itself.
You can spend hours wandering the narrow streets. You’ll find some delightful shops, cafes, and restaurants in the quaint building along the streets and in the piazzas.
Old Town Bari is alive with residents. They live in the buildings within the city walls. If you’re lucking you might spot one of the residents sitting by her door making Orecchiette. It’s a pasta typical in the Puglia region. It gets its name because its shape resembles a small ear. Ear in Italian is Orecchio. Don’t leave the area with out sampling this local specialty.
Piazza Mercantile is a delightful Piazza surrounded by quaint buildings, shops, and restaurants.
One corner of the piazza is dominated by the Colonna Infame, the infamous column. This is where bankrupt debtors were taken for punishment and public humiliation.
I did mention that Bari is a port city, so it stands to reason that the city should have an awesome promenade or corniche. And it does!
The Lungomare Nazario Sauro is a walkway that stretches about 1000 meters along the coast. It’s a great place for a stroll or to sit and contemplate the sea.
It’s also a great place to walk off all the pasta you ate at one of the restaurants across the street in the old town.
If you have the time and inclination to wander around Bari a bit more you might want to stop by the orange building you’ll find in the “new” section of the city. This is the Teatro Petruzzelli, the fourth largest theater in the country.
In my opinion the old town is definitely worth a short visit, 2-3 hours is more than enough time to wander and explore. But in our case we used Bari as our base and took trains to Alberobello, Martina Franca, and Matera in the Basilicata region. There are many other places to visit including Ostuni, Locorotundo, and Lecce. But we didn’t have enough time so we picked the 3 towns that were easily accessible by train.
Bari is serviced by 3 train companies; the state owned Trenitalia and Ferrovie Del Sud Est; and the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane. All three have their own stations, platforms, and tracks. Each company services a different area although some routes do overlap. You can catch all 3 trains at Bari Centrale, Bari’s main train station.
Trenitalia is the country’s main railroad. These trains link towns and cities to each other. Their trains include the high speed trains that link major cities like Rome, Milan, and Florence to each other. The intercity trains link major cities to smaller towns, and the regional trains are the slow local trains that stop in most towns along its route. You catch these trains in the main station. Tickets can be purchased from the ticket office or machines located in the front as you enter the station.
Ferrovie del Sud Est or FSE:
FSE trains and buses service the Puglia region. It’s part of the state owned railroad. These trains run on different tracks and are very slow.
The ticket office and tracks (there are 2) are located to the left of and behind Bari Centrale. To get there you must go to the left side of the main train station, to the stairway that takes you under the tracks. You will see a sign at the top of the stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs is a passage that takes you to Trenitalia tracks 3-10, and the FSE station and platform. Access to this platform is located on the right side of the passage towards the end. Go up the stairs and the ticket office will be on your left.
Tickets to Martina Franca cost €5.90. Tickets between towns are €1.10. These trains also go all the way to Lecce, but very slowly.
We took the 8:22 train to Martina Franca which was the last stop on that route. The same train stops at Alberobello, Locorotunda, Castellana Grotte, and other small towns in the Itria Valley. We got to Martina Franca at 10:20. For directions to the city center of Martina Franca click here.
After rambling around the Baroque town we hopped on a train to Alberobello. You can easily do both towns in one day. You can even fit in Locorotundo if you have the energy!
Trains to Martina Franca and back to Bari run about every half hour. There are no trains on Sundays. Instead take the FSE bus from the FSE station. Bus tickets are the same price as train tickets.
Ferrovie Appulo Lucane:
Appulo Lucane or FAL trains service towns in the Puglia and Basilicata regions. It’s a privately held railroad that runs on its own tracks and moves very slowly.
The FAL station is in a separate building that is in front of and to the right of Bari Centrale. You can buy tickets from the machine on the right side of the hallway leading to the tracks, the ticket office further down the hallway on the right, or the tobacco shop at the end of the hallway on the left. Tickets to Matera cost €4.90 each way.
Once you have your ticket proceed to the end of the hallway and up the stairs to the platforms, there are 2 tracks.
Some trains to Matera are direct, others require a transfer in Altamura. Don’t worry the Altamura station has only 2 tracks and each train car displays its destination. Trains to Matera run about every hour. Ask at the station if you must change trains in Altamura.
For directions from the Matera station to the Sassi click here!
Now whether you’re headed to Rome, Alberobello, Matera, or anywhere on any of these trains the most important thing to remember is to validate your ticket before getting on the train.
There are validating machines located on every platform.
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Matera. Ancient city, shame of Italy, or hidden gem, which describes Matera best? The answer, all of the above.
Matera is a city and a province in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy; the area we fondly refer to as the heel of the boot.
The modern city like any other thriving city is filled with apartment buildings, businesses, and traffic. But that’s not the Matera people come to see. They travel there to see the Sassi districts, the historical city center whose buildings are built in caves on the walls of a steep ravine carved out over millennia by the Gravina River.
The Sassi (Italian word for “the stones”) di Matera is divided into two districts, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano (named so because it lies in the direction of Bari). The Sassi districts along with the collection of Rupestrian (made of rock) Churches have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993.
Long before the site earned its esteemed UNESCO designation the Sassi caves were first occupied in the Paleolithic Age some 7000 years ago. In fact it may be one of the longest continuously inhabited human settlements in the world.
Over the centuries local peasants and artisans gradually burrowed deeper into the natural soft limestone caves to create and expand living spaces. Over time “buildings” were built on top of and beside existing structures until some 1,500 cave dwellings filled the canyon.[spacer height=”-20px”]
By the 1950’s this ancient warren had become a slum housing as much as 16,000 people in horrific conditions. It became known as “the shame of Italy” for its dismal poverty, unsanitary living conditions, and high mortality. At this time the government forcibly relocated Sassi residents to government housing essentially abandoning the entire settlement.
The ancient Sassi stood abandoned into the 1980’s. Its cave dwellings uninhabitable. All this now government owned real estate was pretty much considered an area of poverty and given over to nature and the wolves.
This changed by the 1990’s when enterprising residents with the aid of the government began modernizing and renovating the caves. They’ve installed plumbing, electricity, ventilation, and even wi-fi. Cave hotels, cafes, and restaurants started cropping up and attracting tourist dollars. There’s still a lot to be done to modernize the entire area, but it has become the hip destination in Italy.
This fall we had the pleasure of visiting this amazing city. We took a day trip from our base in nearby Bari. It was easy enough to do and was definitely worth the time!
A visit to the Sassi di Matera is like stepping back in time. Think first century Jerusalem! The cave dwellings with their stone facades easily transport you to Biblical times. Indeed it so resembles ancient cities that film makers have used Matera as the setting for many Biblical movies and TV shows. Movies filmed there include most notably Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004) and Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur (2016). Most recently it was used in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017).
We took the 10:05 Appulo Lucane train from Bari Centrale arriving in Matera Sud just before noon. Plenty of time to walk to the Piazetta Pascoli and grab a quick lunch before meeting up with our tour guide Antonio in front of the Palazzo Lanfranchi located at the top of the piazetta. (The Palazzo is home to the National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art.) [spacer height=”-20px”]
The Piazetta Pascoli is the perfect spot to catch your first glimpse of the Sassi.
The viewpoint on the left of the Palazzo Lanfranchi offers a panoramic view of Sasso Caveoso.
The viewpoint sits at the rim of the canyon and allows you to look down into the Sasso built on its side and across to the caves on the opposite side. The entrance to Sasso Caveoso is located right off the viewpoint. It’s the perfect place to begin your trek down into the ancient town.
Antonio, our local tour guide, started our tour at the viewpoint. There he gave us some history of the Sassi and other interesting facts. We then proceeded down the narrow walkway into the heart of the district.
Along the way Antonio pointed out interesting things such as the natural rock protruding from some of the modern building facades.
Many of the structures we passed were renovated or in the process of renovation. Some had been turned into hotels, restaurants, and shops. But I’d say an equal number of cave dwellings still laid abandoned awaiting a savvy entrepreneur to begin its transformation.
There are several preserved buildings that can be visited, the churches, cisterns, and even some restored homes have become museums that give visitors a peek at how they were back in the day.
One of the building we entered (admission is €3 per person) is the Palombaro or cistern. This water collection system is the main reason the Sassi di Matera became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This vast cavern fully excavated in the rock is 15 meters deep. It collected rainwater that was channeled to it from the top via a system of interconnecting cisterns.
You can also view a small well that provided water to a specific house. These wells were prevalent in the dwellings and I believe their overflow was channeled into the larger cisterns in the town.
We also visited the church of Santa Lucia Alle Malve, one of the Rupestrian churches in the Sassi. (admission is €3 per person; the ticket gives you entrance to all the Rupestrian churches in the Sassi).
The excavation has been dated back to the 9th. century. It was used as a church by a community of Benedictine monks until 1283. In 1797 a new church was constructed in the same caves.
The small church is laid out in the typical basilica style with 3 aisles. Only the right aisle was used for worship. The remaining aisles served various uses mainly habitation by humans and animals. All that remains are frescoes that date between the 11th. and 17th. centuries depicting various icons including the Virgin Mary, Michael the Archangel, and Saints John the Baptist and Benedict. There are also visible signs of the columns that once stood in the church. The columns were dismantled and recycled to create the kitchen when the area was used for housing.
We walked down to a clearing at the bottom of the settlement. The clearing once served as the town’s cemetery. The remains have been moved although one can still see outlines of the graves. From this vantage point you get a clear view of the river that carved this gorge as well as the caves on the opposite wall.
More adventurous folks can drive to the opposite side to explore the caves and hike down to the river. There’s a bridge that connects the two sides, but when we were there the bridge was closed.
Our guided tour ended at this point. Antonio encouraged us to explore on our own but we chose to head over to cafe for some much needed refreshments. [spacer height=”-20px”]
The bustling cafe sits in a little piazza on the lowest street of the Sasso. From here you can explore the the other churches and museums located in Sasso Caveoso or take the road that connects to Sasso Barisano. You can also walk or ride up the stone street to exit the ancient district.
We chose to ride the motorized “taxi” (I called them tuk-tuks because they are similar to the motorized vehicles I ride all over Bangkok.) Our driver dropped us off in front of the Cathedral which is located in the modern district at Piazza Duomo. [spacer height=”-20px”]
Around Piazza Duomo you can find panoramic viewpoints that overlook the Sasso Barisano. You can also find entrances this part of the Sassi.
If you have the energy, we did not, you can trek on down Sasso Barisano and visit more churches and museums located in this area.
Otherwise you can stroll down this pedestrian zone to Piazza del Sedile and Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi where you’ll find the church of the same name.
Further along you’ll find yourself back at Piazzetta Pascoli where if you’re ready you can head back to the train station and return to Bari. Or you can explore the modern city of Matera where you’ll find the archaeological museum, Castello Tramontano, and a host of other churches.
We elected to return to Bari and luckily the next train back was still at the station.
Our day trip to Matera was one of the highlights of our stay in Puglia. Hiring a local tour guide was the best decision we made, Antonio Manicone of Mater Tour Guide made the day memorable. He was well informed, friendly and very helpful. I will not hesitate to recommend him to friends and family planning to visit Matera.
I believe a tour guide is a must, specially for first time visitors. Guides will explain the history of the district, answer any questions you may have, and point out interesting features in the Sassi. The Tourist Information booth on the corner of Via P. Vena and Via Lucana is a good first stop. There you can pickup a map and also book a Sassi tour. They have scheduled group tours for €20 per person.
We had booked Antonio’s tour before we ever left home. It was a bit more costly as it was a private tour, but it was well worth it. Antonio emailed me train schedules and maps to help me get to Matera and our meeting point. He answered all of my questions via email weeks before we ever met. His company offers group, semi-private, and private tours; in short he’s got something for every budget!
Click here for more information on Matera Tour Guide . Or email Antonio at firstname.lastname@example.org, tell him Savvy Nana sent you!
Getting to Matera from Bari Centrale:
At Bari Centrale (the main train station) head to the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane Station located on the right side of the Main station buillding.
You can buy round trip tickets at the ticket booth located on the right side of the hallway or at the tobacco shop on the left side at the end of the hallway. You can also buy tickets at the self service machine located in the middle of the hallway.
Tickets to Matera cost €4.90 each way.
Once you have the ticket go to the end of the hallway and up the stairs to the platform. There are 2 tracks. Be sure you take the train that says Matera Sud, this train goes directly, but slowly to Matera. Matera Sud is the last stop. The Matera Sud trains leave from Bari about every hour or so.
If you can’t find a train to fit your schedule you can buy a ticket to Matera Sud and get on the train from Bari Centrale to Altamura. At Altamura you can transfer on to a train to Matera. You don’t have to worry there are only 2 tracks at the Altamura train station and the trains will clearly state their destination on every car.
The ride to Matera is about an hour and forty five minutes.
Matera has 3 stops. The ones closest to the Sassi are Matera Centrale and Matera Sud. Centrale is closer to Sasso Barisano and Sud to Sasso Caveoso. Either one works, but I prefer Matera Sud, it’s a shorter walk to the Sassi.
Getting to the Sassi Districts from the train stations:
To Sasso Barisano
Get off at Matera Centrale and walk down Via Roma to Piazza Veneto. It’s about a 15 minute walk.
At the piazza you’ll find a viewpoint overlooking Sasso Barisano and stairs leading into this area.
To Sasso Caveoso
Get off at Matera Sud and walk down Via P. Vena to Via Lucana.
Turn right and cross the street. In about 10 feet or less you will spot a small alley called Via Duni on your left; walk down this alley and it will lead you to Piazzetta Pascoli. It’s a 7 minute walk.
Palazzo Lanfranchi will be on your right, walk straight ahead to the viewpoint and the stairs leading into the Sasso.
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Puglia or Apulia in Italian, is a region in southern Italy that borders the Adriatic and Ionian Seas on the east and the Strait of Otranto and Gulf of Taranto on the south. It’s southern most portion of the country known as the Salento Pennisula which forms the “heel of the boot of Italy.”
Bari the capital city of the Puglia region has a population of 1.3 million residing within the city and it’s suburbs. It’s a good place to base yourself while exploring the wonderful sites around Puglia. Of course Bari has many sites worth exploring as well, I’ll discuss that in a future article.
We recently spent several days in Puglia basing ourselves at the excellent HI Hotel Bari.
Bari is connected to many of the towns in the area and beyond by a good network of roads and by a less comprehensive railway system. Renting a car is arguably the best way to see the area.
Of course we did not rent a car, instead we relied on public transportation for our day trips. Not necessarily the best option, but definitely a workable one.
Now there are many, many places to see in the Puglia region, in fact you can spend weeks here and still not see everything. When you’re limited by time and opt to use public transportation your options are a bit limited.
So with three days to spend in Puglia we choose day trips to towns easily accessible on the train.
Now taking trains in and around Bari is a bit more complicated than say taking trains around Rome. This is because there are 3 different rail companies that service the area.
They are: the state railway or Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane also known Trenitalia, Ferrovie Sud-Est (FSE) which is part of the Trenitalia network, Ferrotramviaria, and Ferrovie Appulo Lucane.
The state owned Trenitalia connects Bari to all the major Italian cities as well as some smaller towns in the region and its subsidiary FSE (slow train) connects the city to the southern and south eastern towns. The Ferrotramviaria connects Bari to its airport and to other municipalities to the north. And lastly Appulo Locane connects it to neighboring regions and towns in the west. Confusing right?
Well don’t worry I’ll walk you through it!
For our first day trip we elected to go south using the FSE trains. We left fairly early in the morning and took the FSE train that runs from Bari to Martina Franca passing the interesting towns of Locorotundo, Grotte de Castillana, and Alberobello along the way. It’s a very slow train making lots of stops. Once you pass the ugly urban sprawl of Bari you can enjoy the scenery. Look out for Trulli, those round whitewashed huts with conical roofs, that dot the Apulian country side!
Martina Franca is the second most populated town in the Taranto municipality in the Puglia region of Italy. Its main products are white wine and olive oil. It has hosted the Festival della Valle d’Itria, the summer opera season, since 1975.
The walled old town, or centro storico, which is entered thru Porto Santo Stefano, an ornate Baroque gate on one corner of Piazza XX Settembre, is the town’s main attraction.
The town features an awesome mix of extravagant Baroque buildings and simple whitewashed houses. They line the piazzas and narrow streets that wind thru the old town.
Once you pass thru the beautiful Porto Santo Stefamo gate you’ll find yourself in Piazza Roma. The main focal points of this piazza is the small triangle of grass surrounding the fountain and the Palazzo Ducale across.
Built in 1668 the Palazzo Ducale is Martina Franca’s grandest civic building. It was once home to the dukes who presided over the town during its glory days. Today it serves as the town hall and houses a library and Martina Franca’s tourist information office. You can pick up a town map at the TI office or you can opt to just wander thru the town and explore.
Further along the main street leading from Piazza Roma you’ll run into the Basilica di San Martino. San Martino is the town’s patron saint and the basilica sits at the heart of the centro storico in Piazza Plebiscito.
This ornate church is a magnificent example of Baroque architecture inside and out. Look out for dangling cherubs and fake marble altars!
Another church worth a look at is the Chiesa di San Domineco. [spacer height=”-20px”]
The town is charming and definitely has a lived in feel. Don’t be surprised to see laundry hanging from clotheslines and bicycles stored on balconies!
It’s a bit off the beaten path making it an ideal place to wander if you’re looking to get away from the hustle of the larger cities.
Spend an hour or two wandering the town and don’t forget to stop at one of the cafes for some wine and foccacia![spacer height=”-20px”]
It really didn’t take us long to stroll the narrow streets and marvel at the architecture. The hour and a half we spent in town was more than enough, we even had time to stop at the Cafe Tripoli for a snack!
To make the most of the day we decided to catch the train back towards Bari and stop at Aberobello.
We had considered a short stop at Locorotundo but decided against it as we didn’t feel like walking up the hill. The centro storico of Locorotundo is about a 20 minute uphill walk from the train station.
For travelers with more energy than I could muster up that day a stop at Locorotundo is definitely doable. It’s about a 10 minute train ride from Martina Franca when you’re headed in the Bari direction.
Another stop you can make along this route is at Castellana Grotte. Here you can explore the town’s spectacular caves.
Alberobello is further along the train route, about 10 minutes from the Locorotundo stop. This little town is best known for its high concentration of Trulli. In fact the Trulli of Alberobello has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996.
What you may ask is are Trulli? Trulli are conical buildings made of local limestone that are scattered throughout the Itria valley. They are a fine example of Corbelling, a dry stacked (mortarless) construction technique which dates back to pre-historic times. Alberobello boasts the highest concentration of Trulli in one town. The Trulli of Alberobello date back from the 14th. Century. It is said they were constructed to avoid paying high property taxes. The buildings could quickly be dismantled before the tax assessor came to town.
So really the main attraction of Alberobello are its trulli districts. Wandering the narrow streets that weave between these cute little buildings makes you feel like you’ve wandered into Smurfville or Hobbit town! If you truly want a trulli experience rent one for a couple of days, I hear it’s pretty cool![spacer height=”-20px”]
When you’ve had your fill of Trulli and the Trulli churches, that’s in about hour or so, check out the Alberobello Cathedral. It’s right in front of one of the Trulli zones.
You can grab a table at the cafe about a block down the street and relax with a nice cup of cold Cafe Nocciola.
The cafe has outdoor tables that have a nice view of the cathedral.
After wandering around Alberobello we called it a day and opted to return to our hotel in Bari. We caught the next train back and were at Bari Centrale just as the local restaurants were opening for dinner.
A perfect way to end such a delightful day!
From Bari to Martina Franca via FSE:
Take the FSE from Bari Centrale – the train station and ticket office for FSE is located behind the left side of the Bari main station. To get there go to the left side of the train station until you find the stairs going down.
Go down the stairs that leads to the passageway under the train tracks, follow the signs to Ferrovie Sud-Est. Almost at the end of the passageway on the right side is the stairs that go to the FSE station and platform.
Buy tickets from the ticket office to Martina Franca it cost €5.90 one way. The best train to take so that you get the most out of your day trip is the 8:22 am. It arrives in Martina Franca at about 10:20 am.
You can buy a return ticket as well, but if you’re combining the trip with stops at other towns along the route it’s best to buy tickets at each train station on the way back.
From Martina Franca train station to centro storico:
Walk out of the station and cross the street. On your left you will see a sidewalk with railings.
Walk up this road, it will curve towards the right.
Keep walking up the street until you see a small piazza on your left (the piazza is at the end of a short street on your left)
Take the short street to the small piazza. Go across the piazza heading towards the right side of the piazza where you will find another short street leading from the right side of the piazza.
Go up this short street it will take you to Piazza XX Settembre – that’s a large piazza, you can’t miss it.
Walk thru Piazza XX Settembre (you will turn left to get into this piazza from the short street you were on) on the far side of this piazza you will see the large ornate Porto Santo Stefano. That’s the gate into the walled old town.
To Alberobello from Martina Franca:
At the train station you can purchase a ticket to Alberobello (or Locorotundo, Castellana Grotte, or other towns on the route) from the machine located in front of the building on the train track side, not the street side.
Ticket price to Alberobello is €1.10 (tickets from one town to the next town are priced about the same).
Catch the train that goes to Bari Centrale. Get off at the Alberobello stops (it’s the 3rd. stop from Martina Franca).
From the Alberobello train station to the Trulli zone:
Walk up the road that starts in front of the station. This road will end at the Alberobello Cathedral. One of the Trulli zones starts directly behind the cathedral.
The other smaller Trulli zone is downhill on the road that will be on your right if you’re facing the cathedral.
Alberobello is a very small town. You’ll run across trulli pretty much everywhere, they are not all located in the trulli zones. The zones just have a concentration of trulli and are pedestrian zones.
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