Sofia Bulgaria as a Tourist Destination

Sofia, Bulgaria – the Surprise of Eastern Europe

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A tall, gaunt man limped toward me as I dragged my luggage down the steps of the train that had just arrived in Sofia.

“Where are you going?” he asked shyly, bowing his head in deference.

He wanted to ‘guide’ me in return for a fee but I was fairly certain I could find my way, so I waved him off with a smile. Inside the station I exchanged my few remaining Romanian leu for Bulgarian lev, hit the ATM for additional money, then stepped outside and looked around for the tram or the Metro. Finding neither, I returned to the station, searching for an information booth.

He was waiting for me. “Can I help?” he asked.

Tired from a long train ride, I capitulated and allowed him to lead me to the tram station a block away, where he learned that line was under repair and not in service. “You take taxi,” he suggested. Immediately, my radar kicked in. Was this some sort of a scam?

“No, I take Metro.”

Beckoning me to follow, he limped across the street and descended a stairway leading to an underground tunnel. Growing more suspicious, I followed cautiously, wrinkling my nose up at the stench of urine. “Maybe I’ve made a mistake scheduling a week here,” I thought. At the end of the reeking, litter-strewn tunnel he again motioned for me to follow through double glass doors into the Metro office. After helping me buy a ticket and pointing out my destination on the map, he stepped aside, asking for nothing. Gratefully, I gave him a few lev for his time and proceeded through the turnstile, into a sleek, brand new, spotless Metro station.

Sofia's Vitosha Street, a broad pedestrian walkway, leads through the city's historic center Bulgaria

Sofia’s Vitosha Street, a broad pedestrian walkway, leads through the city’s historic center

Moments later I boarded a train for a quick trip to NDK station, where I emerged onto Vitosha Street and stopped dead in my tracks. The wide pedestrian boulevard was filled with people out for a stroll or enjoying lunch at curbside cafes. Children played in fountains and a crowd had gathered around break-dancing street performers. Luxuriant baskets of flowers hung from every street lamp, bursting with color in the bright afternoon sunlight. “Maybe a week in Sofia won’t be long enough,” I mused.

Performers attract a crowd on Sofia's Vitosha Street pedestrian walkway Bulgaria

Performers attract a crowd on Sofia’s Vitosha Street pedestrian walkway

Having just come from sterile, impersonal Bucharest, Romania, I expected more of the same from this neighboring country but my first impression of Sofia was only a harbinger of things to come. The owner of the Canape Connection Hostel welcomed me warmly, handed me a map of the city, and gave me a brief orientation that included directions to nearby vegetarian restaurants. Later that evening he asked if I would mind checking in a late arrival, as the owners depart at 10 p.m. each night. I had been in Sofia for less than 12 hours and suddenly I was in charge of a hostel!

For the next seven days I reveled in all that this attractive capital city offered. Though I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in Hungary and Romania, meals had been difficult, as they consisted mostly of carb-laden dishes heavy on meat, bread, and potatoes. Vegetarian selections were invariably some sort of fried cheese. On my first foray into the cuisine of Bulgaria I was pleasantly surprised to find an array of salads on the menu, including a ‘stacked’ salad with alternating layers of fresh bibb lettuce, thick tomato slices, grilled vegetables, and haloumi cheese, all drizzled in a delicious vinegar dressing and garnished with garlic rounds. I swooned when I bit into the tomato. Unlike the tasteless varieties found in supermarkets across the U.S., this was rich and juicy and bursting with a flavor that reminded me of my childhood, when my sisters and I carried salt shakers into my grandfather’s garden, picked enormous beefsteak tomatoes, and ate them on the spot, red juice dribbling down our chins.

Typical street in Sofia Bulgaria city center, with shops, cafes, and fruit stands

Typical street in Sofia’s city center, with shops, cafes, and small markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables

A highlight of my visit was the free Sofia Walking Tour, an English-language sightseeing tour conducted by in-the-know volunteers. We set off from the Palace of Justice promptly at 11 a.m. and two hours later I had seen all the major landmarks. Along the way our guide wove fascinating historical details into his narrative, including the story of how Bulgaria saved its 48,000 Jews from being deported to concentration camps during World War II. Bulgaria agreed to support Adolf Hitler because the country had limited military resources; resistance would have been futile. But when Hitler demanded that Bulgaria turn over its Jews there was a huge public outcry, led by clergy from the churches. The King of Bulgaria devised a plan to foil Hitler. Each time he demanded the Jews, the King promised to deliver them, but not until they had completed construction of a new highway, government building, or bridge. In the end, he stalled so long that every single Jewish resident of Bulgaria survived the war, a fact of which the country is rightly proud. Today, Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, and Eastern Orthodox churches face one another in the city center, a reminder that people of different faiths can live together in peace and harmony.

Gold iconostasis at Saint Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral separates the sanctuary from the main part of the church Sofia Bulgaria

Gold iconostasis at Saint Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral separates the sanctuary from the main part of the church

Over the next few days I returned to many of the sites on my own. At Ivan Vasov Garden, one of the city’s most popular meeting places, I listened to a Bulgarian band play New Orleans jazz and watched in fascination as a man in a maroon suit jacket and herringbone checked fedora set up a chess board on a portable table and sat down to wait patiently for a contender to appear.

Man in Ivan Vasov Garden waits for an opponent to challenge him to a game of chess

Man in Ivan Vasov Garden waits for an opponent to challenge him to a game of chess

I examined the ruins of an ancient Thracian city, precursors of Bulgarians, and filled my water jug at the mineral fountains fed by hot springs beneath the city. Those same springs had for years been the source for the Central Mineral Baths, where elite and commoners alike gathered to take the waters. Though the baths are no longer active, the gorgeous Vienna Secessionist style building, which incorporates Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox elements, is currently being restored for use as a museum.

Locals fill bottles with mineral water that flows from hot springs beneath the city Sofia Bulgaria

Locals fill bottles with mineral water that flows from hot springs beneath the city

The Old Central Mineral Baths building is being renovated for a museum Sofia Bulgaria

Sofia’s Old Central Mineral Baths building is being renovated for a museum

One afternoon I discovered the Tea House on Benkovski Street, which hosts live music performances and poetry readings. I sank into an overstuffed armchair and rested my aching feet as I sipped Earl Grey. The bulletin board at the door overflowed with notices of apartments for rent, dog walking services, and Yoga classes. This was definitely a city I could live in.

Tea House on Benkovski Street in Sofia's historic center is popular gathering place and venue for entertainment

Tea House on Benkovski Street in Sofia’s historic center is popular gathering place and venue for entertainment

I thought my attraction to Sofia would wane, as so often happens, but the opposite occurred. I grew so enamored that I checked into the price of apartments and learned that a fully furnished, one bedroom apartment in the city center could be rented for $300 per month. Is Sofia destined to be my summer place? Perhaps, though there are so many places I haven’t yet seen. Only time will tell. I plan to continue my European tour next summer but for now, Sofia remains the most delightful surprise of Eastern Europe.

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80 Comments on “Sofia, Bulgaria – the Surprise of Eastern Europe

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  3. Thanks for sharing such a nice thinking, piece of writing is fastidious, that’s why i have read it completely

  4. Dear Barbara,

    what a lovely article! Thank you so much for this, it absolutely made my day. I am from Sofia but moved to Germany 10 years ago. Sadly, people have very wrong impressions about Bulgaria…mostly connected with mafia and gypsies and God knows what else. I became so emotional while reading your article, it makes me so happy when someone actually gives a chance and finds out how fascinating our country is! Thank you so much. I hope Bulgaria will continue to pleasantly surprise you .

    • Hi Lin: I’ve had such an outpouring of love from residents and former residents of Sofia that it’s been heartwarming! I hope I’ve done my part to let people know how wonderful your home city. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

    • Dear Barbara,

      here is a very interesting read about Bulgaria. It’s a new blog but the information is very useful. May be for your next trip to Bulgaria:

      http://www.kashkaval-tourist.com/

      If you are ever in Düsseldorf, Germany or Bulgaria again, let me know :)
      I follow your blog and looking forward to your next adventure. Thanks for sharing! Enjoy your trip.

  5. Actually about 13,000 Jews were deported by Bulgarian authorities and murdered by the Nazis at Treblinka. Bulgarians like to glaze over that little tidbit.

    • Hi Truth Be Told: Yes, you are correct. Bulgarian authorities permitted Germany to deport the majority of the non-Bulgarian Jews residing in Bulgarian-occupied parts of Greece and Yugoslavia (Greek Thrace and Eastern Macedonia) to the killing camp at Treblinka. However, the fact remains that they saved nearly 50,000 Jews residing in Bulgaria proper, for which they are rightly proud.

  6. Dear Barbara,
    It is so rare for a foreigner to write something so enhancing and kind about our country. I live in the UK and have been living here for the past 6 years, but every time when I pick up a newspaper or check out a program about Bulgaria, all I see is crime, corruption, misery and pain. Frankly that is not the way I see my country. Thank you for giving us a chance and writing this piece, you brought tears to my eyes…

    • You are very welcome, Martin. I so loved my time in Bulgaria and thought the people were lovely. I hope to go back to see more of Bulgaria someday soon.

    • Dear Barbara,

      Thank you for the wonderful and true portrayal of Sofia – through your writing and photos. As an American who has lived in Bulgaria for 4 years (and probably another 10)…, it is nice to have a fresh-eyed perspective of Bulgaria – particularly its local people and culture. Thanks again.

      • You’re very welcome Jesse. I’m always on the lookout for great places that are little known in tourism circles. I hope my article coninces many more travelers to visit Bulgaria, and especially Sofia.

  7. Hi Barbara, thanks for sharing such wonderful writing and photos about Sofia. My husband and I both served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Bulgaria (I from 2002-2004 and he from 2004-2006… that’s how we met), in a small town about 6.5 hours northeast of Sofia. Bulgaria is a wonderful country, filled with natural beauty, great people, and rich culture. Sofia has changed so much in the last 10 years. It really is a cosmopolitan city with so much to offer (I would have LOVED to have a tea house like that to visit when I was there!). It saddens me that Bulgaria is often a country that people overlook in their travels, never stopping to think that it could be a destination on its own. Thanks for explaining that here, and I do hope you get a chance to visit again and see some of the smaller and more off-the-beaten path places!

    • Hi Deena: How lucky that you got to serve in Bulgaria! I am certain that I will go back and see more of the country. I have visited Sozopol, Burgas, and Rila Monastery in addition to Sofia, but I know there is much more to see.

  8. What a wonderful, glowing description of Sofia and its delights. I lived and worked in Pazardjik, east of Sofia near Plovdiv, in 2002 and 2003. Going to Sofia, “the big city,” always brought new discoveries and surprises. It’s amazing how you gained so much insight in just a short stay, from overcoming that first impression (oh how I could identify with that!) to finding such charming places and people to describe. Your photography is stunning, too — makes me almost ache to see those places again.

    • Hi Bruce: What a lovely compliment – thank you so much for taking time to leave a comment. I’m quite certain that Bulgaria is one of the few places in the world to which I will return. I certainly captured my heart!

  9. Thanks for the article, I really enjoyed it! My American husband and I moved to Sofia (from Boston) five years ago and we love it. :)

  10. Hey! I am happy you enjoyed your stay in Sofia.
    If you ever have time to come back which would make me very happy, try visiting some other places like Plovdiv, Nessebar, Koprovshitica, Rila monastary, the sevel Rila lakes… Although I am from Sofia and love the city I think that the real beauty of Bulgaria is in the smaller cities and the nature :)
    Best regards!

  11. Hi Barb,
    Thank you so much for sharing with us your visit in Bulgaria. It makes me proud to be Bulgarian and the same time very sad. I have been away from my country for years now. You bring back a lot of great memories. It is amazing how I see things through your eyes now, that i could not see when I was living there.
    Busy with our daily routine we often forget to slow down and look around, we miss so much of our life. I have been living in Orlando, Fl for the last 7 years, beautiful city, it is clean, very well organized, people from all over the world visit Disney, Universal studios, Sea World e.t.c. , but you know what nothing can compare to the Beauty and History of my BULGARIA.
    Keep up with the great job and enjoy very second of life and travel!
    Thanks again!!!

    • Hi Fani: I am so glad I could bring back cherished memories with my story! It’s definitely true what you say about how we don’t see the things that surround us in the places where we grew up. I was born and raised in Chicago but never realized what a spectacular city it is until I left it. Bulgaria is now officially one of my favorite places in the world and I hope to return to see more of it.

  12. Hi Barbara, Equally delighted as all the rest who have commented on your article seem to be! Of course it warms my heart that you like our capital city because I’ve been away for 5 years now:( and miss it so much but it’s also a very well written material, wish there were more of the kind!! Loved the way you arrived from Bucurest on the train:), not many people would be brave enough to do it nowadays. Especially with the bad reputation we Bulgarians and Romanians seem to have in the UK these days, for some reason or another, not deserved surely but the world has never been fair. We’ve never been good at advertising ourselves either so we should be very grateful to people like you and I am. My hometown is in the south-east and yes, capitals aren’t very popular normally;), Sofia isn’t either but of course it’s a beautiful city. A Cypriote lady told me once that she finds it as beautiful as London, why not:).Thanks and keep on travelling in such a sweet, old-fashioned and proper way and writing in your sincere, positive and beautiful manner. Loved it! PS: Uncle;) Bulgaria is character from Wombles, some English cartoon, hope it’s not a bad one, haven’t watched it yet.

    • Hi Valia: Thank you so much! I was very curious about your comments regarding taking the train from Bucharest to Sofia. It was an older train, for sure, but totally safe. And I was surprised to hear that there are rumors about Romanians and Bulgarians having bad reputations in the UK. I found the people totally friendly and willing to go out of their way to help me. Of course, there is a bit of pickpocketing that goes on, but that happens in many large cities around the world. As far as I’m concerned, Bulgaria is one of the best destinations in the world at the moment.

  13. Bulgaria is a beautiful country and there is so much more to see in it than Sofia.

    I would recommend Ruse, Burgas, Sozopol, Ahtopol, Shumen, Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo, Balchik as must see towns.

    There are small towns and villages in the mountains that are not to be missed, too!

    And I am sure you will enjoy visiting the Seven Rila lakes and the Krushuna waterfalls in spring/summer.

    There is much more to see in Bulgaria of course, but these are the first that come to mind :)

    • You neglected to mention Velingrad as well which is more known as the Balkan Spa capital city. Velingrad has an awesome nature surrounding it and the cleanest air of all Bulgarian towns, so I’d say it’s a must see town.

      • Hi Radoslav: Hadn’t heard about Velingrad but I’ll definitely put it on my list for my next visit.

    • Hi Ina: I spent almost a month in Bulgaria and, in addition to Sofia, visited Burgas, Sozopol, and Rila Monastery. I loved every place I visited and hope I can get back son to visit some of the other places you mentioned. Veliko Tarnovo has been especially mentioned to me by many people.

  14. Im glad you liked the city. However, if you’d like to see real beauty, Plovdiv is the city in Bulgaria that is known for its beautiful artful appearance. A mere 140 km away from sofia!

  15. Dear Barbara,
    Age lived abroad and when I meet people who visited Bulgaria, asked me the same question: Why did I leave my beautiful country. I returned two years ago and now I can better assess its true qualities. It is a land inhabited 6400 BC and we act flows of these ancient people. Glad you are fascinated by Sofia, but this is a small part that you have disclosed. There are many misterious and ancient artifacts on our lands left by the Thracians and the people before them. Because little is known about Bulgaria, especially on the other side of the Ocean, and even in Europ, for those who are interesting, become my friend on Facebook and you`ll find a page from a misterious rich histori of people and places. So the next time you get here, forget about subways smell and urine. For which I am very sorry! Pavlo Pavloff

    • Hi Pavlo: I would love to friend you on Facebook; please send me your url. I also visited Sozopol and Rila Monastery and look forward to a return visit to see more of your lovely country.

  16. Hi Barbara, I like your story about my city. I’m happy you love it and I really hope to have the opportunity to fall in love with the other part of Bulgaria. I want to show you some short movies about the history of Sofia.
    I think they will help you to tell easily the story of your trip in Sofia. https://www.youtube.com/5minutessofia

    • Hi Millen: Thanks so much for the YouTube link. I’ll be sure to check it out. I definitely want to explore more of Bulgaria.

  17. Dear Barbara! It was wonderful to read your article! Reminded me once more about the enchanting character of Sofia. :) I love my city, my home. Next time you are in BG, you should totally consider making a trip around the country, or at least go to some places (mountains, villages where you can taste the home made products, the sea, etc.). I’m sure you’ll love it.
    Take care and hopefully – see you around here some day! :)

    • Hi Denny: I’ll definitely be back some day. I did get to visit Rila Monastery, Burgas, and Sozopol, so I’ve seen a bit more of Bulgaria, but I’m anxious to see the mountain villages, as you say.

  18. Thank you for the kind words, Barbara! As a Bulgarian, I am always delighted to read that a foreigner has appreciated our cultural heritage, you are more than welcome to come again in the summer, you can also visit my natal city- Plovdiv, the second biggest in Bulgaria and enjoy its old part with the Roman Theater, which originally belonged to the Roman Empire, and don’t forget our coastline which will offer you great beaches at very affordable prices :))

  19. Hello Barbara,
    I was born and lived 20 years in Sofia. It is my hometown and I love it, but I have always thought it needs to improve in so many aspects as probably you have seen also. However, I am happy that I keep on meeting people that have a nice impression of my city. I just want to add to your article and the comments that Sofia is the 12th biggest capital in the European Union and the third oldest one! When it comes to places like The Tea house – there are more, you just need an inside person to show them to you. So, next time you or any of your friends visit Sofia, I would be happy to give you some tips!
    Greetings from Aveiro, Portugal (my current home :)

    • Hi Lina: One of my favorite things to do when I visit a new destination is to hook up with locals, so I’m always open to go on tours with insiders. Who knows, maybe the next time I visit you’ll be living there again! In the meantime, if you have any tips, feel free to leave them here and I’ll take notes :-)

  20. Beautiful story alongside the beautiful view just from the roadside. The hot spring stop off just has be stumped! Will have to visit Sofia very soon!

  21. Reading this has gotten me even more excited for our visit next week. I’m also glad we have two weeks set aside for this beautiful place!

    • Hi Dan: I’ll be interested to hear if you like it as much as I did. Be sure to check out the tea house on Benkovsky Street in the historic center of town (cant remember the name), as they have live entertainment most evenings.

  22. The beginning of your story tugged at my heart strings… When I meet people who are shy and/or humble and just help without asking og looking like they expect something from it, (even though, for me, it’s obvious that I will give them something for their trouble), I tend to give them way more… Let’s hope the more arrogant scam artists don’t find out about that ;-)

  23. Sofia Bulgaria, never heard of it until I have read it here. From what I can see in the picture its a beautiful place to visit. I’m planning to go Europe next year, maybe I’ll stop by on this area. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Jeanette: I hope you do get to Sofia; it’s a truly charming city.

  24. Both my husband’s parents, Sephardic Jews, were born in Sofia. His father attended an American school in Sofia and came to the United States to attend university. The US entered World War II soon after he arrived which technically made him an enemy alien since Germany and Bulgaria were “allies”, but he was permitted to continue his studies. His mother and her family left Bulgaria in 1940 at the invitation of one of her father’s business associates in Terre Haute, Indiana, who saw the handwriting on the wall and suggested that they ride out the conflict in the United States. Somehow, they managed to get across Europe by train and were able to get on one of the last ocean liners to leave France for the United States. They had left thinking they would be returning. Needless to say that didn’t happen.

    When I entered the family, I expected Bulgarian food to be like the heavy food you encountered in other Eastern European countries. Instead, it borrows much more from the Middle Eastern tradition. Reflecting another time and relationship between Muslims and Jews, my husband’s grandmother attended school for a time in Turkey. She was born in 1910, so this would have been during the 1920′s. My husband hasn’t had much interest in visiting his “roots”, but I think if I share your post with him, that might change. My husband’s grandmother’s first language was Judazgo, basically, the Spanish that was spoken at the time of the Inquisition in Spain. Therefore, in addition to the Middle Eastern dishes, she also cooked an array of Spanish dishes.

    • Hi Suzanne: Thanks so much for sharing that story, and I really hope you’re able to convince your husband to “visit his roots,” especially since they’re in Bulgaria, which really captured my heart. It’s a hugely underrated, beautiful country, with really affordable prices as well. Your husband’s family was really lucky to get out before things got so bad.

  25. I was born and live for 34 years in Sofia. First thank you Barbara, like all Bulgarians before me I really enjoyed your story. I have to put the attention to people who are interested in history that Bulgaria is a land of history. Actually as you have seen history is everywhere, but in museums – especially archeological and national there are some of the most wonderful golden treasures. It must be checked before coming, because these treasures travel across the world from time to time. Also there are famous thracian tombs (e.g. Goljama Kosmatka, Sveshtari) also medieval cities like Tarnovo, Cherven, Perperikon, Pliska, Preslav, Hissar (famous also with 22 mineral springs). Ruse, Plovdiv and Varna are cities also with history and very nice places of interest. Bulgaria is also famous with its “vine” and vine tourism. Most popular places – Starosel and Melnik.

    • Hi Pavel: So glad you liked my story. As you can probably tell, I loved Bulgaria and hope to return to see more someday.

  26. Wow, it looks very charming. I wish we’d made it there when we lived in London. Oh well, next time!
    Great post.

    • Hi Sam: I stayed a week and could have done two. Such a pretty little city!

  27. Thanks for sharing this great article. I am from Austria/Europe but I never considered travelling to Bulgaria. Your articles opened my mind. I should definitely go there.
    Safe and happy travels.

    Christina

    • Thanks Christina. I was quite taken with Eastern European countries and hope to see more of the area next year, so stay tuned!

  28. Excellent article. I love travelling in Bulgaria. I am interested in history and there is so much history in Bulgaria.

    BTW, the ancient ancestors of modern day Bulgarians were Thracians. Not Dacians, who were in fact ancestors of modern day Romanians.

    • Hi Max: OOPS! I got Romania and Bulgaria mixed up – thanks for pointing that out and I’ve made the correction.

  29. I am from Bulgaria but live in the US for 13 years now. My heart was aching when I started reading your article – your first impression was not too pleasant but felt so real to me. I wish it wasn’t this way. We Bulgarians don’t put too much effort into first impressions. If people take the time to get to know us, they always LOVE everything we are, but not everyone has the time to do that. I am so glad you gave Bulgaria a chance to show you what a beautiful country it actually is, with genuinly good people and rich history and traditions. Thank you for letting more people know about Bulgaria – a tiny Eastern European country, with so much to offer to the world :-)

    • Hi Marineta: I’m so glad you liked my story. In the end, Bulgaria turned out to be my favorite Eastern Europe country and I hope to return someday. Sofia is one of the prettiest, friendliest capital cities I have ever visited.

  30. It sounds like my type of city too! I love how Eastern Europe countries always surprise you with the most unexpected things. Love the post!

    • Thanks Aggy, so glad you liked my story. Bulgaria is a way undervalued country, travel-wise. I hope I’ve convinced more people to go there.

  31. I love this article and this city. I enjoyed the history you wrote about because my parents were refugees in eastern Europe.
    Thank you!

    • You are very welcome Helen. Thank YOU for reading and taking the time to comment.

  32. I actually live in Sofia and I’m really happy to see how people are having a good time here. Our country and a big part of the people living here are kind of negative/skeptical/suspicious about lots of things, but it’s a great place, really :) The story made me smile, so I thank you. Keep on traveling and always do what you love.

    • Hi Tsvetomir: How lovely to hear from someone who lives in Sofia, read my article, and enjoyed it! Thank you so much for letting me know.

  33. Wonderful article! This brought back many good memories from the two years that my wife and I lived in Sofia. We fell in love with the city and with all of Bulgaria!

    • Hi Ellis: So happy that my story brought back god memories for you. Sofia is such a wonderful city; I’m not surprised you have good memories of it.

  34. That was a delight to read, thankyou :) I’ve just visited Sofia myself and found it utterly captivating and oh so sophisticated, not what I expected at all. Thanks again for bringing it all back for me.

  35. Pingback: Sofia, Bulgaria – the Surprise of Eastern Europe | Globe Trotting Winos Guide to World Travel

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