Switzerland

The story of Geneva

Geneva, when seen for the first time, should be seen from the Lake. To arrive at the railway station and be conveyed through featureless streets in a tour bus is merely but to gain an impression of a town that may be any town that has the names of its streets inscribed in French.

The visitor would expect to find something very distinctive about Geneva. He would insist that there must be something unusual about the aspect, position or surroundings of Geneva to account for its history and its pronounced individuality. What is there in the topography of the place that can explain its ponderous gravity, its love of learning, its hatred of the trivial, its passion for reform, and its general dourness?

Geneva seems never to have had a childhood, much less a frivolous youth. It has always appeared to be old and solemn beyond its years. From its earliest days, it clamoured for liberty at the time when its neighbours were quite content with their dukes and their kings. While other towns had their tournaments and courts of love, Geneva was poring over its books. While the girl of Savoy was slyly dropping rose leaves on a troubadour, the maiden of Geneva was sitting at the feet of a droning preacher. While its gates were closed to the jester and the mountebank, they were open to the fanatic and the crank. Geneva was a sanctuary to the man with a grievance, to the honest rebel and to all who were oppressed.

painting of Geneva from 1548
Geneva in 1548

Approached from the Lake, Geneva appears as a brilliant city at the end of an avenue of shining water bounded by green banks. Here the Lake terminates, and here the city shuts in the scene as if the sheet of water were a stage. The buildings are drawn across from shore to shore like a dam. They form an unbroken wall, and yet at some point, the Rhone must be breaking through to make its escape to the sea, but of any such gap, there is no sign. About the place is a sense of finality, a sense of having come to the end of things, for over the tops of the houses that close the Lake, there is nothing to be seen but the sky. The dam might be built on the brink of the world, and beyond it, there may be nothing but space into which the Rhone drops like a waterfall.

On a nearer approach, the brilliance of Geneva becomes more evident. The houses are lofty and bravely coloured and present a wide front of thousands of windows and thousands of sun-blinds. There is nothing to suggest academic solemnity or puritanical gloom. On a hillock to the left are the towers and spire of a church, but beyond this Geneva would appear to be composed of fanciful and magnificent hotels. In the matter of cheerfulness and worldliness, it may be an inland Nice or a lake-side Monte Carlo.

A fuller acquaintance with Calvin’s home shows it to be a fine, ambitious city, beautifully ordered and modern in every particle of its being. Geneva, like Lausanne, has long carried on a crusade against all that is old within its boundaries. Old Geneva has practically vanished, except in a few by-ways and corners; while in its place is a reformed city which is evidently determined never to put new wine into old bottles.  The passing away of old Geneva is to be regretted, as it was a town of peculiar fascination.

Portrait of John Calvin
John Calvin (1509-1564)was a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation.

Medieval Geneva was a small place. The confines of the south town may be indicated at the present day by the lake-side, the Rue d’ltalie, the Place des Casemates, the foot of the Rue de la Croix Rouge and the Rue de la Corraterie; and the boundaries of the smaller town by the quay, by the Rue des Terreaux du Temple, the Rue de Cornavin and the Rue de Chantepoulet.

Inside the Quartier St. Pierre there are feeble traces of even an older town, the almost forgotten Burgundian village, for after the passing away of the Romans Geneva became, in 443, the capital of the Kingdom of Burgundy. Gondebaud, the most famous and most disreputable of the early Burgundian kings built a castle in Geneva in the Bourg-de-Four and surrounded the town with a wall.

Drawing of St. Pierre's Cathedral
St. Pierre Cathedral around 1750.

About 534 the Franks possessed the place, but at the end of the ninth century it was annexed by the new Burgundian kingdom under Rodolfe I. In 1033—on the death of Rodolfe III—it passed into the possession of the German Empire, and thus is explained how the Imperial eagle on a yellow ground became a part of the arms of the city. The wall that enclosed the old Burgundian town ran to the east of the Cathedral and the Bourg-de-Four followed on the north the line of the Rue Calvin and extended towards the Rhone as far as the Tour de Boel. Fragments of this old wall appear in the Rue du Manege, Rue de Bémont, the alleys of the Rue de la Pelisserie and the north face of the Rue Calvin.

Sain Pierre Cathedral
Saint Pierre Cathedral in 2018.

The bridge was a remarkable feature of Geneva. It was interrupted by an island, as it is to this day. It was made of wood and was crowded with wooden houses which hung perilously over the Rhone. They did more than this. They waded out into the river on piles, some venturing as far as a hundred feet. They formed a curious medley of taverns and private houses, of shops and primitive factories, and in some of the dwellings, there was a water-wheel whirling under the ground floor.

The houses were all gaily decorated, and the roadway was made brilliant by swinging shop-signs and the signboards of inns, with perhaps, now and then, the coat of arms of a noble resident. As the structure was of wood, it is no wonder that, on a particular day in 1670, the bridge and all that was on it was burned to the water’s edge.

Two bridges in the City of Geneva
Geneva in 1870 with Pont du Mont-Blanc on the left and Pont des Bergues on the right.

Perhaps the most striking and unique feature of Geneva in those days were the penthouses. They stood high up under the eaves of the dwelling, where they formed part of the fifth story. They were supported on immensely tall square pillars of wood which sprang from the street. They sheltered the houses from sun and rain. There is only one penthouse left in Geneva. It is in the Rue de la Cite (No. 5). It consists of one towering square pillar which supports a room on the fifth story. The little room, which has two windows, looks like a dovecote on a pole.

Old photo of a Penthouse at Rue de la Cite in Geneva
The last of the Penthouses at Rue de la Cite from 1922.
Photo of the Penthouse at Rue de la Cite in Geneva as it is today.
The last of the Penthouses at Rue de la Cite from 2018.

Those who are unmoved by new municipal buildings, palatial hotels, and super-modern shops will find the most interesting part of Geneva in the Musee d’Art et Histoire.  Inaugurated in 1910, the Museum of Art and History is one of the three largest museums in Switzerland.  Here, you will also find innumerable relics which have come down from the days of the lake-dwellers and the Roman occupation to the sober times of the nineteenth century.

Museum of Art and History with dark skies in background
Museum of Art and History, Geneva.

The Maison Tavel, in the heart of Geneva’s old town, is a small cultural history museum. Exhibits here cover a wide range including an amazing nineteenth-century model of Genève, bourgeoisie life in post-medieval Geneva, political developments in the region, and history explained through the minting of coins from the Roman period to the mid-nineteenth century.

One feature in Geneva that curiously impresses the visitor is the sight of the Rhone rushing through the town. There is some inscrutable magic in this spectacle. It is difficult to say what constitutes the fascination of this amazing stream. It is an effect compounded of many things, of the terrific speed at which the tide whirls by, of its haunting colour, and of its gigantic volume, for it seems as if this outrush must empty the Lake in a day.

The sight of the Rhone at Geneva made a great impression upon Ruskin, who explains its enchantment in the following fine passage (Praeterita and Dilecta by John Ruskin published in 1855) :

” For all other rivers, there is a surface, and an underneath, and a vaguely displeasing idea of the bottom. But the Rhone flows like one lambent jewel; its surface is nowhere, its ethereal self is everywhere, the iridescent rush and translucent strength of it blue to the shore, and radiant to the depth. Fifteen feet thick, of not flowing, but flying water; not water, neither melted glacier, rather, one should call it; the force of the ice is with it, and the wreathing of the clouds, the gladness of the sky, and the continuance of Time. Waves of the clear sea are, indeed, lovely to watch, but they are always coming or going, never in any taken shape to be seen for a second. But there was one mighty wave that was always itself, and every fluted swirl of it, constant as the wreathing of a shell . . . the never-pausing plunge, and never-fading flash, and never hushing whisper.”

In the place of the two bridges of Ruskin’s time, there are now sixteen bridges in the Canton of Geneva and all temperately ugly. In the middle of the river, as it leaves the Lake, is a cute little island called, in the old days, the Île des Bergues, or Isle of Barges. It is shaded by trees and forms a cool retreat from the whirl of traffic and the buzz of life along the quays.  The Isle of Barges, know today as the L’Ile Rousseau is a popular relaxing point for locals, coming here on a lunch break during the sunny days to have a sandwich and coffee in a small snack & tea shop – Pavillon de l’Ile Rousseau.  It offers wine, tea, coffee,  simple snacks such as sandwiches and baguettes, but also salads and paninis, ice creams and cakes.  It is, moreover, a place frequented by seagulls. These birds are a pleasing feature in the life of the Lake and their migration every year is still a matter of mystery.

Resting area in the City of Geneva
The Île Rousseau is an island and park in Geneva, situated in the middle of the Rhone. It was named after the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

If the average visitor were advised that there is, in a public park in Geneva, a monument to the Reformation he would probably express gratitude for the warning and add that there were already enough memorials in England and France to satisfy the most morbid craving. Yet this is a monument so remarkable and so impressive that it is worth a pilgrimage to see it. It consists of a long stone wall of great height. At the bottom of the wall runs a stream, clear as crystal, in a channel of stone. There are lilies in flower in the stream. Above the wall rises the old city of Geneva. In the centre of the wall stand erect four gigantic figures of men. They are the four leaders of the Reformation—Farel, Calvin, de Beze, and Knox. They are solemn enough and grim enough; while their immense proportions give them the aspect of superhuman strength.

Reformation statues
Reformation wall in Parc Des Bastions.

They stand, side by side, with their backs to the wall. It is, however, no mere wall. Behind it is the curtain of the ancient bulwarks, that wall of 1543 which kept the town safe.

Along the vast screen are other figures, smaller and, by comparison, less significant. Among them are Cromwell, the courtly Coligny, and plain, honest Robert Williams. There are also bas-reliefs depicting various scenes in the development of the Reformation between the years 1536 and 1602. All these are of interest, but they do not disturb the impression made by the four stern-faced men who stand with their backs to the wall that faces Rome.

The Old Town and its treasures

The heart of Geneva is L’lle, a little island on the Rhone, where the old bridge crossed between the two quartiers of the town. There was a bridge here before the days of Christ.  Julius Caesar found it stemming the river when he came to this part in B.C. 58. On the south of the Rhone at that date were vague people called the Allobroges and on the north the equally vague Helvetes. Caesar had already dealt with the Allobroges, but the Helvetes were giving trouble. They used to swarm over the bridge and were making themselves exceedingly offensive; so the Roman general caused the bridge to be broken down and thus stopped their activities. This event is recorded on a stone in the wall of the modern tower which now stands on the island. This tower, which is pleasing enough for a structure that has no reason for being a tower, occupies the site of a very old castle or keep which came to be, at one time, the Bastille of Geneva. The heroic patriot Philibert Berthelier was confined here and was beheaded at the foot of the tower on August 23rd, 1519.

old photo of Geneva Rue de la Tour
Rue de la Tour-de-l’Ile in 1870.
Rue de la Tour-de-l'Ile today.
Rue de la Tour-de-l’Ile today.
Statue of Philibert Berhelier.
Statue of Philibert Berhelier.

The bridge opens upon the Place Bel Air, which was at one time known as the Square of the Three Kings from a tavern of that name. Professor Doumergue states that in this spot the punishment of the pillory was administered as late as 1811.

Clock Tower in Geneva
A view from the Place de Bel-Air.

The Low Town is represented by a series of parallel streets which run east and west in a line with the quay. These streets were once the most picturesque in Geneva, here were the penthouses as previously described.  They have now been entirely rebuilt and are devoted to rows of ambitious shops. Even the quaint old alleys which crept between the Rue du Marche or Rue de la Croix d’Or and the Rue du Rhone have either completely vanished or have been robbed of any interest.

The Place de la Fusterie, the Place du Molard, and the Place de Longemalle—now busy squares—were once inlets from the Lake where ships discharged their cargoes. At the Lake end of the Place du Molard was a tower which (very much renovated) still remains.  Originally built for military purposes, the tower with the same name was part of the enclosure which surrounded the city and protected the port. With its current form a reconstruction of how it was in 1591, the tower was ornated with friezes and coats of arms of major personalities from the Reformation as well as an engraved plaque honouring ‘Geneva, the city of refuge’.

The Molard Tower.
The Molard Tower.

The High Town is reached by steep streets which all inevitably lead to the Town Hall, the Cathedral, and the Bourg-de-Four. Of these streets, the Rue de la Cite has probably seen more of the past life of Geneva than any other. At the bottom of the street is the fountain of the Escalade, erected in 1857. It is a pleasant-looking monument of stone, alive with little bronze figures which are very busy in making vivid the tale they have to tell. It is placed where it is because, on the night of December 11, 1602, when the attempt to seize the city was made, this small street was in the very thick of it.

La Fontaine de L'Escalade.
La Fontaine de L’Escalade.

Near the top of the hill, the Rue de la Cite changes its name to the Grande Rue. House No. 40 in this street was the birthplace—as a tablet declares—of Jean Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712). The ancient house is replaced by a quite new building, belonging, appropriately enough, to a museum, Maison de Rousseau et de la literature.  About this point, the Rue de la Pelisserie stumbles up into the Grande Rue. It is a narrow, dingy street of picturesque buildings, many of which are of some age. It is so steep a street that at the bottom it has recourse to a flight of steps in order to accomplish the ascent.

Stairs in Rue de la Pélisserie 16
Rue de la Pélisserie 16.

Near the top of the Rue de la Pelisserie is a large house (No. 18). It is the best house in the street, possesses four stories with a quite dignified entrance.  It is not old, nor has it a claim to any architectural beauty, but it was here that Mary Anne Evans, known by her pen name George Eliot stayed from October 1849 to March 1850. She lodged with a family named Durade, the husband being an artist. She had a bed-sitting-room, took her meals with the Durades and paid for this lodging and board 150 francs a month.

Rue de la Pélisserie 16-18 from 1887
Rue de la Pélisserie 18 ca. 1887.
Rue de la Pélisserie 16-18 today
Rue de la Pélisserie 16-18 today. 

Turning out of this street is the Rue Jean Calvin, a sober, narrow street which is making its way to the Cathedral. It ends in a tiny square where are a fountain and a tree and where people come to rest. In a house (No. 11), near to this little square, Calvin lived. It is needless to say that the house he lived in was pulled down in 1706 and replaced by the current building.

The Fountain in Rue Jean Calvin
The Fountain in Rue Jean Calvin.

In the Rue du Puits St. Pierre, leading out of the Rue Jean Calvin is the famous Tavel house (No. 6). This is one of the most perfect of the old city houses. It is a square, solid building, supported at one corner by a round tower with a conical roof. The windows have been modernized, although their original outlines are still evident and there is one little slit of a window with a pointed arch which seems to have been overlooked. There is a series of very curious heads projecting from the wall of the house, which has besides a fine courtyard with a winding stair and some admirable ironwork in the forms of a fanlight and a balcony.

The Tavel House
The Tavel House is the oldest house in Geneva, built in the 12th century by the Maison family. In 1334, the house was reconstructed following a devastating fire. In 1963, the house was purchased by the city of Geneva and remade into the museum of history of Geneva.

Before the Rue de la Cite finally reaches the Bourg-de-Four it changes its name for the second time and becomes the Rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville. In this street (No. 8) is the Turrettini house, which claims, with the Tavel house, to be one of the few remaining specimens of the great houses of Geneva. It dates from 1620. The Turrettini were Italians who came to Geneva as Protestant refugees and who, in their new home, raised themselves to positions of dignity and repute. The house is built of stone in the classical style and is impressive by its fine proportions and its great simplicity.

Two other streets of interest clamber up from the Low Town to that common meeting-place, the Bourg-de-Four. They are the Rue Verdaine and the Rue de la Fontaine.  At No. 15 Rue Verdaine, Henri Amiel (Swiss moral philosopher, poet, and critic) passed the closing days of his life. He was that strange, lonely and melancholy man who poured forth the dreariness of his soul in the Journal Intime.   It looks towards the Cathedral (which stands above it) and faces that remarkable passage, the Degres de Poules or Hen Steps. The Hen Steps are entered through a rounded archway and mount up to the Cathedral. The steps, which form a stair as steep as a ladder, pass underneath some ancient buildings which were formerly stables and granaries. The Hen Steps date from 1554.

The passage of the Degrés-de-Poules.

At No. 32 Rue de la Fontaine is an old entry with a rounded arch that leads into an alley. The arch pierces the fragment of a wall as ancient as the doorway. The guide-book states that this wall belonged to the palace of the Bishop and that by this exit Pierre de la Baume, the last Bishop of Geneva, left the city on July 14, 1533.

The Bourg-de-Four is an irregularly shaped place on the summit of the town, surrounded by equally irregularly shaped houses. It has a modest fountain, is shaded by some old trees and is altogether a nice and picturesque part of the city.  The ancient Burgundian castle which was destroyed by the Count of Savoy in 1320 stood here. The Bourg was for centuries the social and business centre of Geneva and a very pleasant rallying point it must have been. It was the place where the fairs were held and where the chief inns were located.

Bourg-de-four square.

The Old Buildings and The Alleys

The Town Hall, near to the Bourg-de-Four, possesses considerable interest. Its history is very fully recorded. Externally the building offers little attraction. It looks comparatively modern and presents the features of the municipal offices of any large provincial town. It has, however, an entry—built in 1617—of greater dignity than the average municipal office attains; while all along its front is a stone bench fit for Roman senators to sit on. In the wall to the left of the main entrance was a bronze tablet erected in 1558 in honour of the Reformation.  There was a scene of a curious ceremony on the road at the foot of the tablet in June 1762.  A fairly brisk fire of twigs was burning in the street, and around it, but at a careful distance, was a crowd of people whose expressions denoted varying shades of indignation or disgust. In the centre of the circle was a man in a dismal costume who was busy tearing up books and throwing them on the fire. The man was the common hangman and the books were the works of J. J. Rousseau.

At the back of the Town Hall is the Baudet Tower, one of the oldest buildings in the city, it dates from 1455. It is a small, low, square tower of great charm and obviously of great age. The authorities of Geneva have done their best to make it look new but only with indifferent success. Even the upper story, which was transformed in 1894, fails to spoil it.

Townhall, the facade on the Treille side: Baudet tower and the statute of Pictet de Rochemond.

In the corner of the picturesque court of the Town Hall is a fine Renaissance doorway bearing the date 1556. It opens upon the famous paved slope. This slope, which is unique in Europe, makes its way by a series of sharp turns to the top of the building—to the third floor, in fact. It has a vaulted roof, is paved with small cobblestones and is lit through a series of arches which open upon the courtyard.

The one gracious room in the Town Hall is the State Council Chamber, which dates from the 15th century. It is small and in spite of its modern windows realizes very fitly the solemn room where Calvin imposed his will and pronounced before the awed council his edicts. The ceiling is a reproduction of that of the 16th century, while the panelling has been removed to the Museum and replaced by a commendable imitation. Round the walls are certain frescoes which were only laid bare during alterations made in 1901. They deal with Justice and depict the perfect judge as a gentleman with his hands cut off to show that he cannot—even if he would —accept a bribe.

The Grand Council Chamber is comparatively modern, while the very ornate Alabama Hall is only of interest from the facts that the Red Cross Society was founded here in 1864 and that within its walls in 1872 the Alabama claim was settled.

In the building’s Alabama Room, an 1872 international arbitration court ended a conflict between the United States of America and Great Britain.

Opposite the Hotel de Ville is the old market hall of 1415. It has been many times restored but is still, with its gaudily painted shutters, an impressive building. The open ground floor where the market was held is now void, while the upper part of the hall was the city armoury.

Behind the Town Hall is the famous Promenade of La Treille. It is the oldest public walk in the city and, being placed on the ramparts, provides a magnificent view of the country to the south of Geneva. It is here that that poor solitary creature Amiel, the unsuccessful professor, was wont to pace to and fro pondering over the misery of life and inventing fresh expressions of melancholy for insertion in his diary. La Treille takes its origin from the early part of the 16th century. It has been frequently repaired and remade, as the dates (1557 to 1713) on the supporting wall serve to show. It is planted in all its length with chestnut trees, which make it the most pleasant and best-shaded walk in Geneva. Not the least noticeable feature of the terrace is the bench which runs from one end of the parade to the other, for it claims the curious distinction of being the longest bench in the world.

Town Hall, the facade on the side of the La Treille promenade.

The Cathedral of St. Peter on the summit of the town is probably as well known to travellers as St. Peter’s at Rome or St. Paul’s in London. Its two square towers and its graceful steeple form the landmarks of Geneva for miles around. The first church upon this site is credited with the date 1034. The present building had its origin in the 12th and 13th centuries and provides an illustration of the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic styles. The very beautiful Gothic chapel of the Maccabees was constructed in 1406 and refashioned in 1878. The whole Cathedral has been much restored and affords an instance of the remarkable power the Genevese possess of making the most ancient building look new. The Corinthian portico which would do credit to a provincial corn exchange was added in 1759 to the permanent disfigurement of an otherwise consistent building. In the Cathedral is a plain chair ” which it is supposed that Calvin employed in his pulpit.

The Cathedral of St. Peter.

There are two other old churches in this part of Geneva—the Temple de la Madeleine and St. Germain. The Madeleine, in the queer ill-shapen Place of that name, dates from the early part of the 12th century; but was rebuilt in 1446 and in 1611 and very violently restored in recent years. Its gallant old tower (plastered over to make it appear new) has very ancient round-arched windows. The rest of the building is Gothic and is so ” done up ” that it may have been built in the present century. The church of St. Germain is almost as old as the Madeleine. It is much hemmed in by mean buildings. Its one fine feature is its venerable square tower which has happily escaped the restorer. The rest of the edifice has, however, suffered severely at his hands. It is a church with a “past,” for it has been in turn a butcher’s shop, a Flemish chapel, and an artillery barracks.

Temple de la Madeleine.

Close to the Cathedral is the Auditoire. It has been a church since 1213, except for an interval in the 16th century when it was a smithy. It was at one time a chapel for the English residents in Geneva.  In the Auditoire, Calvin delivered his famous lectures. On the wall is a tablet which states that John Knox, “pastor of the English residents and citizen of Geneva,” preached in the chapel during the years 1555-7. The building, however, is so entirely modern in appearance that the announcement makes no impression. It is rather impossible to associate this very present-day building with the 16th century and the great Scots reformer.

Calvin Auditory.

The St. Gervais quarter of Geneva, to the north of the Rhone, presents little that is of interest. The old quarter, surrounded by its walls and towers, occupied a very gentle slope, the summit of which is represented by the top of the Rue Cornavin. Here stood—at the end of a bridge crossing the moat—one of the main gates of Geneva. It was by this gate that most travellers entered the town, and as the railway station is situated here it happens that they still enter by the same point. As the southern town has its church of St. Peter’s, so this division of Geneva has its church of St. Gervais.

Temple de Saint-Gervais.

This church dates from the middle of the 15th century. It has a fine tower with Romanesque windows. On the south face of the tower are the arms of the bishop, Francois de Mies, and the date 1435. The rest of the church adopts the Gothic arch, is built largely of brick, and presents, under the margin of the roof, a cornice of modillions of the 15th century. The whole building has, however, been so thoroughly restored as to be of small interest.  On the outer wall of the church in Rue des Corps Saints, is a tablet giving the names of those citizens of Geneva —seventeen in all—who were killed during the Escalade of 1602.

Outer wall of the Temple de Saint-Gervais

The alleys of old Geneva are fast disappearing, and with them will vanish a characteristic and intimate feature of the ancient city. There are certain alleys in the southern town which are worth exploring. The Passage des Barrieres, near the Madeleine, with its steep stairs and its suspicious twists and turns, is certainly picturesque; while the alley that leads from No. 24 Rue Verdaine to the Rue de la Fontaine conveys a sense almost of alarm. A narrow subway leads to a flight of stone stairs.

The most uncanny alleys, however, are on the other side of the Rhone.  Notable are those that lead from the Rue du Temple to the bank of the stream, together with a few that slink out of the Rue Cornavin. They recall to mind every horror story that is concerned with the darker life of a medieval town. Here is the narrow entry that one-armed man could hold against a score. Here is the doorway, deeply sunken in shadow, where the assassin with the cloak would wait, and there the steps that lead to the suspicious half-open door. There are square vents in walls, each guarded by an iron grille, that let the light into no one knows what chambers of horror. There is the courtyard, green with mould and dark as a pit, that is made a haunted place by reason of the dust-covered windows which spy into it story above story. These by-ways are deserted. They are not places to linger in, for there is an atmosphere of uneasiness about them which persists until the sunlight and the open air are once more reached. It needs but little fancy to people them with a hundred terrors, to imagine oneself chased down these nightmare lanes and to find no way of escape, to detect footsteps creeping around the corner, to see a white face at one of the dreadful windows, or to have the silence of a hollow courtyard rent by a heart-chilling shriek.

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