Before 1991, Croatia (then part of Yugoslavia) was shaping up as the new Costa del Sol. Planeloads of western Europeans - 10 million of them a year - were hitting the Adriatic shores in search of sun, cheap living, medieval quaintness and perhaps a spot of naturism. But with the violent break-up of Yugoslavia, Croatia changed its public-consciousness tag from 'two-week getaway' to 'war-torn hell-hole', a hard tag to shake.

Despite the tragedy and horror of recent years, Croatia's charms are largely intact. Most of the areas popular with travellers emerged unscathed or have been restored since the war, but reminders of the country's painful history abound and everyone has a story to tell.

The aura of medieval Croatia endures in the cobbled streets of Rovinj and the recently restored other-worldliness of Dubrovnik's Stari Grad. The country is also home to some of Europe's finest Roman ruins, including the immense palace of Diocletian in Split. The weather and the beaches are as good as they always were and, if that's your bag, Croatia is still a good place to get your gear off: the good news is, you'll no longer be haunch-to-haunch with most of western Europe when you drop your guard.


Facts at a Glance

Full country name: Republic of Croatia
Area: 58,540 sq km (22,830 sq mi)
Population: 5 million
Capital city: Zagreb (pop: 1 million)
People: Croats (78%), Serbs (12%), Slavic Muslims, Hungarians, Slovenes
Language: Croatian, German, Serbian
Religion: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox
Government: Parliamentary democracy
President: Franjo Tudjman


Croatia is located on the northeastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, bordered by Slovenia and Hungary to the north, Yugoslavia to the east and Bosnia-Hercegovina to the south and east. The republic is twice the size of Belgium and swings around like a boomerang from the Pannonian plains of Slavonia, across hilly central Croatia to the Istrian Peninsula and the rugged Adriatic Coast. The southernmost portion of Croatia's Adriatic coast, including the town of Dubrovnik, is separated from the rest of the country by a knuckle of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Croatia's main tourist attraction has always been its beaches. The country has 1778km (1103mi) of coastline; 5790km (3590mi) if you count the islands. Most of the beaches, however, are slabs of rock rather than sand. The country's offshore islands are as beautiful as those in Greece. There are 1185 of them, 66 of which are inhabited.

Croatia has seven excellent national parks. Brijuni, near Pula, is the most carefully cultivated, with well-preserved Mediterranean holm oak forests. Mountainous Risnjak National Park, is home to lynx, while the dense forests of Paklenica National Park harbour insects, reptiles and birds, including the endangered griffon vulture. At Plitvice National Park you'll find bears, wolves and deer.

The climate varies from Mediterranean along the Adriatic coast to continental inland. The sunny coastal areas have hot, dry summers and mild, rainy winters. The high coastal mountains help to shield the coast from cold northerly winds, making for an early spring and a late autumn. In Zagreb, average daily high temperatures peak at 27C (80F) in July and drop to 2C (35F) in January.


In 229 BC, Croatia's native Illyrians lost their land to the Roman empire - in 285 AD Emperor Diocletian built the palace fortress in Split, now the greatest Roman ruin in eastern Europe. The Western Roman empire collapsed in the 5th century, and, around 625, Slavic tribes migrated to Croatia from present-day Poland. The Croatian tribe moved into what is now Croatia, occupying the former Roman provinces of Dalmatian Croatia and Pannonian Croatia to the north-east. The two provinces were united in 925 into a single kingdom which prospered into the 12th century.

In 1242 a Tatar invasion devastated Croatia. In the 16th century, as the Turks threatened to take over the Balkans, northern Croatia turned to the Habsburgs of Austria for protection, remaining under their influence until 1918. Meanwhile, the Dalmatian coast was taken by Venice in the early 15th century and held until the end of the 17th century, when it was taken by Napoleonic France and made part of the Illyrian provinces (along with Istria and Slovenia).

A revival of Croatian cultural and political life began in 1835 - the serfs were liberated, and northern Croatia came under the rule of Hungary, which granted it a degree of internal autonomy. When the Austro-Hungarian empire was defeated in WWI, Croatia became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats & Slovenes, mercifully shortened to Yugoslavia in 1929. Croatian nationalists were rather miffed that Belgrade was made capital of the union, and assassinated King Alexander in 1934 in protest.

In 1941 Germany invaded Yugoslavia and set up a fascist puppet government (the Ustasa) in Croatia. The Ustasa tried to expel all Serbs from Croatia, and when this didn't work they set the pattern for ethnic cleansing by murdering around 350,000 ethnic Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. Not all Croats agreed with this policy, and many joined with the communist partisans to overthrow the Ustasa. By the time the war ended, about a million people had died in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Postwar Croatia was granted republic status within the Yugoslav Federation, governed by the communist Marshal Tito. As Croatia outstripped the southern republics economically, it demanded greater autonomy, bringing a series of purges down on the heads of its residents during the 1970s. When Tito died in 1980, a farcical political system was instituted which resulted in the presidency rotating annually between the republics, and Croatia's economy ground to a halt.

In the late 1980s, severe repression of the Albanian majority in Serbia's Kosovo province sparked fears that Serbia was trying to impose its rule over the rest of the Federation. As communist governments fell throughout eastern Europe, Croats began agitating for autonomy and an end to communism. In 1990 Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union won elections. A new constitution was instituted which changed the status of Serbs in Croatia to a 'national minority' rather than a 'constituent nation'. Serbian rights were not guaranteed by the new constitution, and many Serbs lost their government jobs.

In June 1991 Croatia declared its independence from the Federation, and the Serbian enclave of Krajina declared its independence from Croatia. Heavy fighting broke out throughout the country, and the Yugoslav People's Army, dominated by Serb communists, intervened in support of the Serbs. When things looked hairy, Croatia agreed to freeze its independence declaration for three months. Nonetheless, fighting continued, and a quarter of Croatia fell to Serb militias and the federal army. In October 1991 the federal army moved against Dubrovnik and bombed the presidential palace in Zagreb, sparking EC sanctions against Serbia. In November Vukovar fell to the Serbs after a three-month siege. In six months, 10,000 people had died, hundreds of thousands had fled, and tens of thousands of homes had been destroyed.

After a series of unsuccessful ceasefires, the UN deployed a protection force in Serbian-held Croatia in January 1992. The federal army withdrew from Croatia and in May 1992 Croatia was admitted to the UN, after amending its constitution to protect minority groups and human rights. In Krajina, Serb paramilitary groups retained the upper hand and, in January 1993, Croatia launched an attack on the area. Krajina responded by declaring itself a republic and reducing its Croat population by nearly 98%. In 1994, Krajina signed a ceasefire but, in May 1995, violence again exploded. Krajina lost the support of Belgrade, Croatian forces flooded the area, and 150,000 Serbs fled, many from towns where their ancestors had lived for centuries.

The Dayton agreement of December 1995 eventually brought a sense of stability to the country. However, masses of refugees still live in a twilight zone, waiting to learn their fate, while the government tries to deal with unemployed ex-soldiers, housing for displaced Croats and a severely damaged infrastructure. Despite these problems, Croatia has managed to repair a great deal of the damage done during the war - the restoration of Dubrovnik has been particularly successful - and tourists are now returning.

Economic Profile

GDP: US$12.4 billion
GDP per head: US$2640
Annual growth: 1.5%
Inflation: 4%
Major industries: Steel, cement, chemicals, fertilisers, textiles
Major trading partners: Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Austria


Sculptor Ivan Mestrovic is the pride and joy of Croatia's art world. His work can be seen in town squares throughout the country, and he has also designed several imposing buildings, including the Croatian History Museum in Zagreb. Croatian literary figures include 16th century playwright Marin Drzic and 20th century novelist, playwright and poet Miroslav Krleza - the latter's multi-volume work, The Banners, is a saga about Croatian life at the turn of the century.

Croatian folk music is a hotch-potch of styles. The kolo, a lively Slavic round dance, is accompanied by Gypsy-style violinists or players of the tambura, a Croatian mandolin. Dalmatia's gentle guitar and accordion bands have a distinctly Italian flavour.

Croats are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, while virtually all Serbs are Eastern Orthodox. In addition to various doctrinal differences, Orthodox Christians venerate icons, let priests marry, and couldn't care less about the Pope. Thoroughly suppressed during Yugoslavia's communist period, Roman Catholicism is now making a comeback, with most churches strongly attended every Sunday. Muslims make up 1.2% of the population and Protestants 0.4%. There's a tiny Jewish population in Zagreb.

Croatians love a bit of oil, and among the greasy delicacies you'll find here are burek, a layered pie made with meat or cheese, and piroska, a cheese donut from the Zagreb region. The Adriatic coast excels in seafood: regional dishes include scampi, prstaci (shellfish), and Dalmatian brodet (mixed fish stewed with rice). Inland look for specialties such as manistra od bobica (beans and fresh maize soup) or struckle (cottage cheese rolls).


From 21 March to 4 April, Zagreb snaps its fingers and nods knowingly to the groovy toons of Spring Time Jazz Fever. For still more improv, try Zagreb's International Days of Jazz in mid-October. It's worth checking out spotty pop Dalmatian-style at the Split Summer Festival in July, the same month as Zagreb's Summer Festival, where you can hear classical works by Croatian composers. Dubrovnik's Summer Festival, held in July and August, showcases the country's dramatic and classical music stars. In July and August, Omis throws its tambura out the window for a festival of acapella vocal music.

Zagreb hosts an International Festival of Animation and an International Folklore Festival in July, as well as EUROKAZ, a European theatre festival held in June. Opatja celebrates the traditional music of Istria in July, while Slavonian culture gets its turn in Pozega's Golden Strings Festival in September. In Sibenik, the International Child's Festival is held at the end of June

Facts for the Traveller

Visas: All visitors save those with a US passport need visas. Visas are available at Croatian consulates or the border (but it's much less hassle to get one before you go); they're valid for three months and extensions are possible.
Health risks: none (though Croatia's health system is under severe strain)
Time: GMT/UTC plus 1 hour
Electricity: 220V, 50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric

Money & Costs

Currency: Croatian kuna
Exchange rate: US$1 = HRK6.5
Relative costs:

  • Budget meal: US$4-8
  • Moderate restaurant meal: US$8-20
  • Top-end restaurant meal: US$20 and upwards
  • Budget room: US$12-20
  • Moderate hotel: US$20-50
  • Top-end hotel: US$50-150

The government deliberately overvalues the kuna to obtain cheap foreign currency. Hotel prices are quoted in Deutschemarks and thus are fairly constant, though you actually pay in Croatian kuna calculated at the daily official rate. Budget accommodation is in short supply but transport, food, and concert and theatre tickets are reasonably priced. It's not that hard to travel around Croatia on US$35 a day if you stay in hostels or private rooms - even less if you camp. Double that if you want to travel in comfort and triple it if you want to indulge in a little luxury.

There are numerous places to change money, all offering similar rates. Exchange offices charge commission but some banks do not. Banks are the only place you can change kuna back into hard currency. You can get a cash advance on your credit card at banks throughout the country, though Visa credit cards are not accepted by all banks.

If you're served well at a restaurant, round up the bill unless a service charge has already been added. Bar bills and taxi fares should also be rounded up. Tour guides also expect to be tipped.

When to Go

May to September are the best months to visit Croatia weather-wise, though July and August can be busy along the Adriatic coast. September is probably the optimum month since by then the crowds have thinned out, off-season rates apply and fruits such as figs and grapes are abundant. In April and October it may be too cool for camping, but the weather is usually fine along the coast and private rooms are plentiful and inexpensive. You can swim in the sea from mid-June to late September.


On 15 January 1999 - -, the formerly Serb-held area of Eastern Slavonia on the Croatia-Yugoslavia border was transferred from the United Nations to the Government of Croatia. A UN transitional administration controlled the area for two years and managed to successfully demilitarise and stabilise it. However, there continue to be isolated incidents of violence and civil unrest and hundreds of anti-personnel mines remain scattered in the region.



Zagreb has been the capital of Croatia since 1557, and a lot of the medieval city is still around today. Although Zagreb was hit by rockets in 1995, the damage was not severe and recovery has been rapid: you'll still see affluent looking consumers shopping and cafe-ing the days away, smiles on their faces and Italian designer-wear on their backs. However, many museums remain closed, some for 'reinterpretation'. There are some very elegant pricey hotels near the train station, and budget accommodation is hard to find.

The twin neo-Gothic spires of St Stephen's Cathedral were built in 1899, but you can still see elements of the medieval cathedral that was once on this site. Particularly interesting are the 13th century frescos, Renaissance pews, marble altars and a baroque pulpit. North-west of the city centre, climb the Lotrscak Tower for a sweeping 360 view of the city, or visit the Muzejski prostor, which hosts superb art shows. Also in the area is St Mark's Church, with its colourful painted-tile roof and sculptures by Ivan Mestrovic, and the Natural History Museum, Historical Museum of Croatia and the City Museum, housed in a former convent.

In the Lower Town you can wear down your shoes and your attention span at a whole host of museums. The exhibition pavilion hosts temporary contemporary art exhibitions, the Strossmayer Gallery features paintings by the old masters and an ancient inscription in Croatian. The Archaeological Museum, like its contemporaries around the world, has exhibitions of prehistoric and medieval artefacts and Egyptian mummies. Out the back there's a Roman sculpture garden.

Before you get a gutful of museums, head to the west of the city where you'll find the Museum Mimara. This is one of the finest art galleries in Europe. Housed in a neo-Renaissance building, the gallery is the private collection of Ante Topic Mimara, who donated thousands of priceless objects to his home town. The Spanish, Italian and Dutch paintings are the highlight, but there are also displays of glassware, sculpture and Oriental art. The other real highlight of Zagreb is Mirogoj, one of the most beautiful cemeteries in Europe - it's in the north of the city. There are some gorgeous mausoleums here, and the English-style landscaping is enclosed by a long 19th century neo-Renaissance arcade.


Founded 1300 years ago, Dubrovnik's appeal lies in the old town of Stari Grad, with its marble-paved squares, steep cobbled streets, tall houses, convents, churches, palaces, fountains and museums, all cut from the same light-coloured stone. The intact city walls keep motorists at bay, and the town has an agreeable climate and lush vegetation, due to its location at the southern end of the country's Adriatic coast. Although Dubrovnik was heavily shelled in 1991, it has been largely restored - recent travellers have even reported that Dubrovnik looks better than it did before the war, particularly as the tourist hordes have not yet returned.

The Placa, Dubrovnik's wonderful pedestrian promenade, runs from the city bus stop outside Pile Gate to the clock tower at the other end of town. Just inside the Pile Gate, the Franciscan Monastery houses a pharmacy which has been operating since 1391. At the other end of the Placa stands St Blaise's Church, a lovely Italian baroque building, and the Gothic Rector's Palace, built in 1441. The palace is now a museum with furnished rooms, baroque paintings and historical exhibits. Opposite is a bustling morning market.

Dubrovnik's city walls were built between the 13th and 16th centuries, and are still intact today. Arguably the finest city walls in the world, they are over 2km (1.2mi) long and 25m (82ft) high, with 16 towers. You can't beat the view from here, and a walk along the walls will probably be the highlight of your visit to Dubrovnik.

If you feel like a spell in the sun, you could stretch out on Dubrovnik's city beaches, but a better bet is to take the ferry to Lokrum Island. This island is a national park, with a rocky nudist beach, a botanical garden and the ruins of a medieval Benedictine monastery. The easiest way to find a place to stay in Dubrovnik is to accept an offer of a private room from one of the women waiting at the ferry terminal - a hotel will cost you a lot more.

You can get to Dubrovnik by air from Zagreb, by bus from all over the place, or by ferry from Hvar, Split, Zadar and Rijeka. Ferries are a more expensive but far more comfortable option than catching a bus. Buses must pass through border checkposts at Neum, where Bosnia-Hercegovina reaches the Adriatic coast, truncating Croatia's southern Adriatic coast from the rest of the country.


Split is the heart of the province of Dalmatia. It's located 150km (95mi) north of Dubrovnik, and is the largest Croatian city on the Adriatic coast. Split really made its mark on the map in the 4th century, when Roman Emperor Diocletian (famous for throwing Jesus fans to the lions) had his retirement palace built here. When the nearby Roman colony of Salona was abandoned to the barbarian hordes in the 7th century, many of its inhabitants fled to Split, where they holed up behind the high palace walls. Split has become an industrial city, but the old town, the air of exuberance and the truckload of things to see make this one of the most fascinating cities in Europe.

Diocletian's Palace is one of the most imposing Roman ruins in the world. More a fortress than a palace, its walls were originally 215m (705ft) by 180m (590ft) and contained the imperial residence, temples and a mausoleum. You can still see the vestibule of the original palace, the fortress' colonnaded square, the Temple of Jupiter and the remains of Diocletian's mausoleum, now a cathedral. Just outside the palace are some medieval-era buildings, including the 15th century town hall. You could spend hours wandering around this part of town, where everyday life bustles along in an open-air museum setting.

The most interesting museum in Split is the maritime museum, which lives in a 17th century fortress. It has a large collection of maps, photos, artefacts and scale models. The archaeological museum, which has part of its collection in gardens outside the museum, is also worth a visit. The Mestrovic Gallery has a comprehensive, well-arranged collection of works by Croatia's premier modern sculptor.

It's quite difficult to get a room in Split - many of its hotels are still housing refugees, and the private room business, which took a dive during the war, is still finding its feet. You can get to Split by air or train from Zagreb, by bus from the rest of the country and by ferry from a whole bunch of mainland and island ports, including Dubrovnik, Hvar and Korcula.


Relaxed Rovinj is a picturesque town of cobbled streets on the coast of Istria, a heart-shaped peninsula in Croatia's northwest which borders Slovenia. Wooded hills punctuated by low-rise hotels surround the town, while the 13 green islands of the Rovinj archipelago provide perfect sea vistas. Rovinj is an active fishing port, and is within easy sailing distance of the historic Italian port city of Trieste, which may explain Rovinj's large Italian community.

The largest baroque building in Istria, the 57m (187ft) high Cathedral of St Euphemia, dominates the town. It was built when Rovinj was the bulwark of the Venetian fleet. St Euphemia's remains were brought here from Constantinople in 800 AD, 500 years after she was martyred, and on 16 September every year devotees congregate at her tomb.

Rovinj Aquarium is more than a century old and has an excellent collection of local marine life, including poisonous scorpion fish and colourful anemones. The Punta Corrente Forest Park, south of the town, is a lovely spot for a swim and a meditative gaze out to sea. You can get to Rovinj by bus from most Croatian towns and by ferry in summer from Trieste in Italy.

Off the Beaten Track


Rab Island, near the centre of the Kvarner island group off north-western Croatia, is one of the most enticing in the Adriatic. The north-eastern side of the island is barren and rocky, while the south-western side is green with pine forests. Medieval Rab town, one of the prettiest in the region, is built on a narrow peninsula which encloses a sheltered harbour - stone buildings climb from the harbour to a cliff overlooking the sea. Rab has been ruled by both Venice and Austria, and these days you'll hear as much German as Croatian spoken.

The four towers of Rab's churches are easy to spot among the town's mass of red-roofed houses. The Monastery of St Anthony was built in 1175, the Romanesque cathedral has a pleasant terrace which overlooks the sea, and the St Justine Church is now a small museum of religious art. All that remains of Rab's oldest church is the tower and the foundations. Take a walk along the city wall for spectacular views of the town, or head north to the shady walkways of the city park. Rab Island is accessible by ferry and bus; ferries depart for Rab from the mainland port of Jablanac.


Korcula Island is rich in vineyards and olive trees, and its southern coast is dotted with quiet coves and small beaches. The town of Korcula is a typical medieval Dalmatian town, with its round defensive towers and cluster of red-roofed houses.

Korcula's Cathedral Square has a strong Venetian influence, and even has its own Cathedral of St Mark, with two paintings by Tintoretto. Next to the cathedral is the 14th century Abbey Palace, which houses the town's treasury, and opposite is the 15th century Gabriellis Palace. This is now the town museum, with exhibits of Greek pottery, Roman ceramics and home furnishings. If you believe the local tourist bureau, Marco Polo was born in Korcula, and you can poke your nose into the house where he lived.

From Korcula town you can visit Lumbarda, a picturesque settlement at the south-eastern end of the island. It has a good beach, and the town is surrounded by vineyards which produce a dry white wine. A shuttle boat runs from Korcula to Badija Island, which has a naturist beach. If you want to stay overnight on Badija, you can shack up in a 15th century monastery which has been converted into a hotel.

Korcula is approximately 20km (12mi) off Croatia's southern Adriatic coast, mid-way between Dubrovnik and Split. It's accessible from both ports by ferry.


The ruins of the ancient city of Salona (now known as Solin), among the vineyards north-east of Split, are the most interesting archaeological site in Croatia. Salona was the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia from the time of Julius Caesar until 614 AD, when it fell to the so-called barbarians.

Outside the ancient city, Manastrine was a burial place for early Christian martyrs, knocked off in the times when the religion was illegal. You can see excavated graves and a 5th century basilica. Above the graveyard is an archeological museum. To the south are ruins of an early Christian cult centre, including a three-aisled 5th century cathedral, public baths and a small bapistry. At the western end of Salona is the huge 2nd century amphitheatre, destroyed by the Venetians in the 17th century so that Turkish raiders wouldn't use it as a refuge. Solin is an easy day trip from Split.

Mljet Island

A third of pencil-thin Mljet Island is a national park. The park's main attractions are two salt-water lakes surrounded by pine-clad slopes. Most visitors come on a day trip, so if you stay overnight you'll have the place to yourself. There's a little island in the middle of the larger lake; if you catch a boat out there you can have lunch at the 12th century Benedictine monastery which is now the park's hotel. The island is a great spot for swimming and sunbathing, or you can rent a bike and ride around the park. Mljet is approximately 15km (9mi) off Croatia's southern Adriatic coast, mid-way between Korcula and Dubrovnik. It's accessible from Dubrovnik by ferry.

Activities The long, rugged islands off Croatia's mountainous coast make this a yachting paradise. There are plenty of deep channels, quaint ports and good steady winds. It's also a great area for sea kayaking, especially around the Elafiti Islands and the Kornati Islands. The diving industry in Croatia is in its infancy - shops are just beginning to appear in towns such as Hvar and on Rab Island - but if you've got your own gear there's clear water and a whole bunch of aquatic beasts just waiting to be looked at. For landlubbers, Risnjak and Paklenica National Parks both have excellent areas for hiking.

Getting There & Away Flights connect Zagreb to a swag of European cities. Croatia's international airport is 17km (11mi) south-east of Zagreb. The departure tax is US$8. Buses run between Zagreb and several cities in Hungary and Germany, as well as to Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and Antwerp (Belgium). Trains connect Zagreb to Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania, while ferries link Croatia to Greece and Italy. Travellers with their own vehicle can use four border crossings between Hungary and Croatia, 29 between Slovenia and Croatia, 23 between Bosnia and Croatia and seven between Yugoslavia and Croatia.

Getting Around Croatia Airlines has daily flights from Zagreb to Dubrovnik, Pula, Split and Skopje. The country's excellent bus network is far-reaching and reasonably priced. Trains are cheaper and more comfortable than the bus, but also a lot slower.

All the usual car rental chains are represented in Zagreb and Split. Drive on the right side of the road. The spectacular Adriatic highway from Italy to Albania runs along the steep slopes of Croatia's coastal range, and is one of the most exciting drives in the world.

If you can get where you're going by ferry, then do it - cruising among the islands of the Adriatic certainly beats sitting on a bus, no matter how cheap or fast it is. Jadrolinja ferries ply the waters between Dubrovnik and Rijeka. If you buy a ticket for the whole trip, you can stop off as many times as you want for up to a week each time. Other ferries run between Pula, Mali Losinj and Zadar, and to most of the larger islands.

Recommended Reading

  • Anatomy of Deceit by Jerry Blaskovich tells the story of Croatia's recent war through the eyes of a physician who worked with the Croatians. Croatia: A Nation Forged in War, by Marcus Tanner, tries to give a more objective viewpoint.
  • For more tales of misery, try The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican, edited by Vladimir Dedijer. It tells the story of Croatia's Serb massacres and the involvement of the Catholic Church in the horrors of WWII.
  • Barisa Krekic's Dubrovnik: A Mediterranean Urban Society is a collection of works written about the town's history from 1300 to 1600.
  • Fording the Stream of Consciousness, edited by Dubravka Ugresic, is a collection of 'Writings from an Unbound Europe'.

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