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Albania

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Travel Guide Europe Albania

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Introduction

Tortoise in Butrint, Albania

Tortoise in Butrint, Albania

© All Rights Reserved Patrick H.

A communist state for half a century until the early nineties, Albania's move away from Communism has been one charged with difficulty, as it continues to move forward. Located in the heart of the Mediterranean, on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, Albania is fast becoming one of the world's most interesting getaways. Still relatively unspoiled by globalization, tourists will notice an inspiring mixture of civilizations and cultures - making this European country truly unique.

Nestled in between Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro, and across the Adriatic from Italy, Albania boasts blue and turquoise seas, beautiful beaches, snow peaked mountains, rivers, lakes, and forests. As well as stunning nature, Albanians themselves are famous for their hospitality, and tourists are welcomed with heart-warming generosity.

Albanian history and culture is fascinating. Butrint, one of the world's archeological wonders - and a UNESCO World Heritage Site - in the south of Albania provides a glimpse of Mediterranean civilization from the Bronze Age through the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman periods - all atop a cliff overlooking Corfu. It's not to be missed!

Home of both Mother Theresa and the great 15th century hero Skanderbeg, Albania today offers not only beach and mountain holidays, but also a vibrant city life, a relaxing outdoor cafe culture and you will see that it's quickly evolving in a myriad of directions.

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Brief History

The first recorded inhabitants in the territory of Albania were the Illyrians, an Indo-European people that inhabited the area corresponding to northern and central Albania. Beginning in the 8th century BC, Greek colonies were established on the Illyrian coast. The most important were Apollonia, Avlona (modern-day Vlorë), Epidamnos (modern-day Durrës), and Lissus (modern-day Lezhë). The rediscovered Greek city of Buthrotum (modern-day Butrint), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is probably more significant today than it was when Julius Caesar used it as a provisions depot for his troops during his campaigns in the 1st century BC.

When the Roman Empire was divided into East and West in 395, the territories of modern Albania became part of the Byzantine Empire. Beginning in the first decades of Byzantine rule (until 461), the region suffered devastating raids by Visigoths, Huns, and Ostrogoths. In the 6th and 7th centuries, the region was overrun by the Slavs. The territory of Albania would remain under Byzantine and Bulgarian rule until the 14th century, when the Ottoman Turks began to make incursions into the Empire.

The territorial nucleus of the Albanian state forms in the Middle Ages, as the Principality of Arbër and the Kingdom of Albania. The first records of the Albanian people as a distinct ethnicity also date to this period. The area was conquered in the 15th century by the Ottoman Empire and remained under Ottoman control as part of the Rumelia province until 1912, when the first independent Albanian state was declared. The formation of an Albanian national consciousness dates to the later 19th century and is part of the larger phenomenon of rise of nationalism under the Ottoman Empire. A short-lived monarchy (1914-1925) was succeeded by an even shorter-lived first Albanian Republic (1925-1928), to be replaced by another monarchy (1928-1939), which was conquered into Fascist Italy during World War II. After the collapse of the Axis powers, Albania became a communist state, the Socialist People's Republic of Albania, which for the most part of its duration was dominated by Enver Hoxha. Albania became an ally of the Soviet Union, but this came to an end in 1960 over the advent of de-Stalinization. A strong political alliance with China followed, leading to several billion dollars in aid, which was curtailed after 1974. China cut off aid in 1978 when Albania attacked its policies after the death of the Chinese ruler Mao Zedong. Enver Hoxha died on 11 April 1985. Eventually the new regime introduced some liberalization, and granting the freedom to travel abroad in 1990. The new government made efforts to improve ties with the outside world.

The communist regime collapsed in 1990, and the Republic of Albania was founded in 1991 and the former communist party was routed in elections March 1992, amid economic collapse and social unrest. Further crisis during the 1990s, peaking in the 1997 Lottery Uprising, led to mass emigration of Albanians, mostly to Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Germany and to North America during the 1990s. Albania became a full member of NATO in 2009. The country is applying to join the European Union.

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Geography

Albania shares international borders with Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. In the east it borders the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea. These seas are divided by the street of Otranto, named after the town in Italy which lies 72 kilometres from the coast of Albania. Albania has a total area of 28,748 square kilometers. It lies between latitudes 39° and 43° N, and mostly between longitudes 19° and 21° E (a small area lies east of 21°). Albania's coastline length is 476 kilometres and extends along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. The lowlands of the west face the Adriatic Sea. The 70% of the country that is mountainous is rugged and often inaccessible from the outside. The highest mountain is Korab situated in the district of Dibër, reaching up to 2,753 metres. The climate on the coast is typically Mediterranean with mild, wet winters and warm, sunny, and rather dry summers. Inland conditions vary depending on altitude, but the higher areas above 1,500 metresare rather cold and frequently snowy in winter; here cold conditions with snow may linger into spring. The three largest and deepest tectonic lakes of the Balkan Peninsula are partly located in Albania. Lake Shkodër in the country's northwest has a surface which can vary between 370 km2 and 530 km2, out of which one third belongs to Albania and rest to Montenegro. The Albanian shoreline of the lake is 57 kilometres. Ohrid Lake is situated in the country's southeast and is shared between Albania and Republic of Macedonia. It has a maximal depth of 289 metres and a variety of unique flora and fauna can be found there, including "living fossils" and many endemic species. There is also Butrinti Lake which is a small tectonic lake.

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Regions

  • Coastal Albania - the long narrow strip of between about 10 and 30 km wide along the whole of the Albanian coast, bordering both the Adriatic Sea and Ionian Sea
  • Northeastern Albania - the inland region to the north of the Shkumbin River, bordering Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia.
  • Southeastern Albania - the inland region to the south of the Shkumbin River bordering Macedonia and Greece, and including the great border lakes, Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa.

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Cities

  • Tirana - the capital and a great city to explore on foot, including its green and mountainous surroundings.
  • Berat - Thought to be one of the oldest towns in Albania, it is a new member of the UNESCO world heritage list. Berat has long been known as the "city of 1001 windows" because of its unique Ottoman/Albanian architecture. It has a well preserved castle with residents still living inside its protective walls.
  • Durrës
  • Elbasan - A large, poor, intriguing industrial city that is full of life. The market is fascinating, and the breakfast "Bugace" legendary. The Via Ignatia, an old Roman road to Istanbul, runs through the city.
  • Fier - Lively seaside city, and only about 8 km (5 mi) away from the ruins of the ancient Illyrian city of Apollonia.
  • Gjirokastër - another UNESCO city, located in the south is known for its unique Ottoman period architecture. There is a large castle on the hill in the middle of the city which served as a jail for many generations. A Military Museum and Art Gallery are now located inside. Gjirokastër is also the birthplace of former communist Leader, Enver Hoxha, as well as Albania's most internationally famous author, Ismail Kadare, their homes now serve as museums.
  • Korca - Located in southeast Albania, several miles from the Greek border, this city is full of life during the summer when you can find couples and families strolling through the city's main park, Parku Rinia. You can hike to the top of the beautiful mountain Moravia and view the city and its surrounding landscape. Don't miss the Korca Brewery (famous throughout Albania) which sponsors a week long Beer Festival every August!
  • Kruje- ancient city of the national hero Skanderbeg. It consists of beautiful mountains; Skanderbeg's castle is now a museum. Kruje also contains an old style bazaar with shops selling traditional goods amid cobblestone streets. Kruje is known for it's carpet craftworks.
  • Sarandë - a city in southern Albania known for its unforgettable beaches and colorful spring blooms.
  • Shkodra - the biggest city in Northern Albania. Shkodra is considered the capital of Albanian culture. In Shkodra is located "Migjeni" theatre, the first in Albania and also was held the first cyclic race and also the first football match and the first photograph was developed (by Marubi). The Rozafa Castle is a major tourist attraction here,but also "The Great Cathedral", "The mosque Ebu Beker" etc.
  • Vlorë - Lively seaside city, nice beaches south of town. Passenger ferries to and from Italy dock here.
  • Lezhë
  • Peshkopi
  • Pogradec - Overshadowed by its glitzy neighbors on the Macedonian side of the lake, the town of Pogradec has been experiencing a revival recently.
  • Kukës

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Sights and Activities

Butrint

Butrint is one of the cultural highlights of Albania and on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is located in the south of the country and can be visited from Sarandë as a day trip. It used to be a city throughout Greek, Roman, bishopric and Byzantine periods and was abandoned during the Middle Ages perhaps due to the marsh surrounding and subsequently malaria epidemic. It had been inhabited since prehistoric times. The present archaeological site is a repository of ruins representing each period in the city’s development. Butrint can even be visited as a day trip from the Greek Island of Corfu, meaning extra crowds during the summer months.

Gjirokastër

Another UNESCO site, the Museum-City of Gjirokastër is located the Drinos River valley in southern Albania. It is a fine, but rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate. The 13th-century citadel is the main feature in the town with its typical tower houses, which have a tall basement, a first floor for use in the cold season, and a second floor for the warm season. The castle has an exhibit of Enver Hoxha's army's cannons and other features include the Ethnographic Museum, the Old Bazaar and the nearby old city of Antigonea.

Durrës

Durrës is one of the oldest cities in Albania and is the major port city of the country. The city has been flooded three times and the current one is built on top of the previous two. There are some fantastic sites as well including the largest amphitheater in the Balkans. Although there are some beaches and new hotels are being built all the time, hoping to see some tourists mainly from Italy, it is not a dream destination to spend your holiday. That said, it is a nice and convenient place to travel on your way from Italy to the Balkan region and vice versa. Boats leave for Bari daily.

Other sights and activities

  • Albanian Alps - This mountainous complex on the north of the country forms the border between Albania and Montenegro. Rich on rainfalls, sheep, bare rocks and scenic views it is one of the places in Albania you should see. One of the places where you can be less than 10 km away from the nearest village and still have a day long trip there.
  • Lura National Par - a 1,280 hectare national park with high mountains, big meadows, and glacial lakes.
  • Kruja
  • Theth - National park and village in Northern Albania

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Weather

Parts of Albania, like other countries in the region, have a Mediterranean climate with generally warm and dry summers and mild, wet winters. Summer lasts from May until early October, with temperatures around 30 °C, sometimes close to 40 °C on the hottest days. Nights are around 20 °C at the coastline, but are cooler more inland and in the higher parts of the country. Winter is from December to March, with coastal areas seeing temperatures between 10 °C and 15 °C, but inland areas can be much colder and the higher areas can have some snow. Although summers are relatively dry, from November to May rainfall increases and Albania is wetter compared to many other countries in the Mediterranean region.

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Getting There

By Plane

Tirana International Airport (also known as Rinas airport or Mother Teresa airport) is located 25 km north-west of Tirana. There are regular connections with Italy, Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, England, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia. Albanian Airlines is the national carrier. Significant upgrades, including a new passenger terminal, were completed in March 2007 and the airport now describes itself as 'meeting international standards'. Taxis can take you to and from the airport for about 2500 Lek (roughly €20) each way. The journey is 30-45 minutes depending on traffic. Rinas Express operates an hourly bus service (6am-6pm) between the Airport and the National Museum in the centre of Tirana. The one-way fare is 250 Lek.[1]

By Car

You can drive into Albania from Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia or Greece. You need all the proper documentation, insurance and possibly a visa though regulations have become better. Some companies won't cover insurance for Albania though, so check things properly or you will have problems when you are involved in an accident.
To Greece, there are border crossings between Korça and Florina at Kapshtica/Krystallopigi, between Ioannina and Gjirokastra at Kakavija/Kakavia, between Ioannina and Përmeti, and north of the Greek port of Igoumenitsa at Konispoli/Sagiada.
There are four border crossings with Macedonia, the two most used are south and north of Lake Ohrid (via Pogradec or directly east from Elbasan).
Montenegro has two border crossings, the direct one to Podgorica is not in a good condition, the one from Shkodra is.

By Bus

Bus services link Tirana to Tetovo (Macedonia), Pristina (Kosovo), Athens (Greece), Sofia (Bulgaria) and Istanbul (Turkey). To Prishtina, there are three daily buses taking 10 hours. Sofia is about 17 hours away.
To Ohrid in Macedonia, you will have to cross on foot from Pogradec (after taking a taxi to the border) and get an onward bus to Ohrid (45 minutes), or alternatively take a daily bus to Struga, the first city on Macedonian side of the border, which has frequent shared taxi connections to Ohrid. There is a minibus between Shkodra and Ulcinj in Montenegro which departs Shkodra at 4pm from the main square. The cost is €5 (payable in euros only), or a taxi to the border will cost €10. A taxi all the way to Ulcinj is €20. Be prepared to wait at the border.

By Boat

Albania's port cities of Durrës, Vlora, Shen Gjini and Saranda link the country to Italy and the Greek island of Corfu. Ionian Cruises has daily hydrofoils between Corfu and Saranda in Albania.
Ferry operators include Ventouris between Bari, Greece and Durres as well as Agoudimos Lines between Brindisi and Vlore.

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Getting Around

By Plane

There are no domestic flights in Albania.

By Train

Durres, Tirana, Shkodra, Fier, Ballsh, Vlora and Pogradec all have railway stations and most trains terminate or originate in Tirana. Still, services are infrequent and slow and carriages are downright dirty sometimes, with broken windows being the rule rather than the exception. Tirana to Durres is just about an hour and if you really want to do a train trip in Albania, make it this short one. Otherwise, buses are much faster.

By Car

Although until recently there were only a few good roads, the road network is being upgraded at a rapid pace. Secondary roads are still in a rather deteriorated shape though. Other roads are winding mountain roads, but generally don't require a 4wd. You can rent cars and relatively high prices from most international firms at the international airport or downtown in Tirana. Renting a taxi for a day or so sometimes is just as expensive and save you the hassle of driving. Traffic drives on the right and you need a national driver's licence and international driving permit.

By Bus

Buses and minibuses (called 'furgons') ply most routes in the country and there are frequent services to the main cities and towns, including Tirana, Durres, Sarande, Shkodra, Vlora, Fier and Pogradec. They are reliable, cheap and comfortable modes of transport and often the best way to get around from point A to point B the fastest.

By Boat

The only domestic ferry journey is the Komani to Fierza boat.

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Red Tape

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, nationals of the following countries/territories can enter Albania without a visa: Andorra, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holy See, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania *, Luxemburg *, Macedonia, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, United Kingdom, USA, Ukraine.

States, which citizens may enter without visas due to their visa liberalization with Schengen area: Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Brunei, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Mauritius, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, El Salvador, Seychelles, St. Kitts and Nevis, Uruguay, Venezuela, Macao (China). For staying more than 90 days within the period of six months, they need to get visa type D.

There is a €1 road tax for the first 60 days of your stay. For every additional day it is €1 per day. Be sure to receive a receipt and keep it with you, as guards may request it upon exiting the country as proof of payment. The former €10 entrance fee per person has been abolished. The Albania guards are very nice and do their best to help out and will, on occasion, allow fees to be paid in dollars or will forget to charge you. It's worth making sure you've got the Euros on you as the customs officers at Mother Teresa airport don't give change.

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Money

See also: Money Matters

The currency of Albania is the Albanian Lek (ISO code: ALL) (plural Lekë). Albanian banknotes are in denominations of 100, 200, 500, 1,000 and 5,000 lekë, while coins come in 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 lekë.

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Language

Albanians have a very unique language, taking up its own branch of the Indo-European language family. It doesn't compare easily to any other language and as a result, it is very hard to understand for an outsider. There are two main spoken dialects of Albanian, southern Tosk and northern Gheg, and they are mutually intelligible.

Italian is probably the most useful other language to know as a traveller, as many Albanians have learned to speak it by working in Italy or through Italian broadcasts on television. Many Albanians are multilingual, often able to speak 3 or 4 languages with varying levels of fluency. Consequently, it is possible to get by in English, Greek or French. Russian is understood to some degree by some of the older generation, as they were taught it in school when they were younger.

Though not specifically language related, it is well worth pointing out an interesting difference in Albanian custom. Nodding means 'no' in Albania and shaking your head means 'yes'. Considering you often have to resort to waving your arms around and using physical communications due to language barriers, this can become exceedingly confusing.

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Eat

Restaurants are very easy to find. Albania, like the Balkans in general, has a primarily Turkish influence in its cuisine. This influence stems from over 400 years of Ottoman rule in the region. Recent influences after the fall of communism in the early 1990s have been from Italy and Western Europe in general. Most of what is available in neighbouring countries such as Greece and Italy will be available in Albania, particularly in the larger cities.

A must try when visiting Albania is the Koran fish in the city of Pogradec near the city of Korca.

Other dishes include:

  • Byrek - a type of savory pie is also common, and is made in different ways. One way is with spinach and feta cheese. Another is with ground meat and onion. Byrek Shqipëtar me perime is often considered the national dish.
  • Tavë kosi - It is a simple dish of baked lamb and rice, served with a yogurt sauce. It is sometimes referred to as a national dish in Albania.
  • Qofte të fërguara - Albanian fried meatballs with feta cheese. Traditionally served with fried poatoes or rice.
  • Baklava is a popular dessert and is always made as a dessert during New Year's Eve.
  • Oshaf - A fig and sheep’s milk pudding

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Sleep

Inside the cities, hotels are abundant and prices per night start as low as €15. Hotels are usually clean and their staff in major cities generally speak English and/or Italian. Outside the big cities, hotels are less common, but in places like Gjirokastra can be excellent value. If, for any reason, you find nowhere to sleep, the Albanian people have always been known for their hospitality, and will treat you like royalty as you stay with them.

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Drink

The preferred alcoholic hard drink is raki that is locally produced in small towns as well as in many homes in the countryside; in some instances you may run across men washing down breakfast with a few shots. Try the mulberry rakia - Albanians are the only people in the world that produce this drink with mulberry and plum, and its very delicious, especially around Gjirokaster. The number of homemade beers, wines and raki is as varied as the population itself; the quality of these drinks is as varied as the quantity available. Non-alcoholic drinks range from the well-known international and regional soft drink brands to the locally produced ones. You can find any type of soft drink in Albania, as well as natural mineral water, energy drinks, etc. Qafshtama water is considered the best water and found in much of the country. Boza, a popular sweet drink made from maize (corn) and wheat is a traditional Albanian drink, and Albanians have been known as the best boza makers in the world.

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Health

See also: Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Albania. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Albania) where that disease is widely prevalent.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Albania. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended.

If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against typhoid as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. It is also recommended to have a vaccination against tick borne encephalitis when you go hiking and/or camping for 4 weeks or more in the period of March to November.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also: Travel Safety

Take the usual precautions. Foreigners are generally not targeted by the local crime scene, though pickpocketings do occur.

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Keep Connected

Internet

Almost every city or town in Albania has public internet access, usually available at an Internet cafe. Some hotels, especially in Tirana, have broadband connections in the guest rooms; a few have Wi-Fi.

Phone

See also: International Telephone Calls

The country calling code to Albania is: 355. To make an international call from Albania, the code is: 00.
Coverage of cell phones is good, except in the most remote, mountainous areas.

Post

Post Ashqiptare is the national postal service of Albania and services have been getting more reliable and faster over the years. Opening times of post offices are mostly between 8:00am and 5:00pm Monday to Friday and on Saturday mornings, although the bigger ones might keep slightly longer hours, while in small towns there might be shorter hours or a lunch break. For sending things other than postcards and letters or anything of value, you might consider using a private company like UPS, TNT, FedEx or DHL.

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Quick Facts

Albania flag

Map of Albania

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Local name
Shqipëria
Capital
Tirana
Government
Republic
Nationality
Albanian
Population
3,600,000
Languages
Albanian
Religions
Islam, Christianity (Albanian Orthodox, Catholic)
Currency
Albanian Lek (ALL)
Calling Code
+355
Time Zone
CET (UTC+1)
Summer (DST)
CEST (UTC+2)

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Albania Travel Helpers

  • dyakhnov

    I have lived in Tirana for two years (2003-2005) so can help with basic information about the city and country.

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  • Zbulo

    By the time or writing I have lived for two years in Albania, spending one almost exclusively traveling, another four month during winter as the first foreigners in history in the cut-off mountain village Theth.
    I founded a tour operator business that caters for the active holiday makers, adventurists and cultural curious .

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  • adnan355

    I have been to Albania several times covering the country from north to south. I am willing to help anyone who wants to ask anything about the country whether its about accomodation, activities, food and transportation

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Accommodation in Albania

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