Croatia Calling

Terraced beach on the Dalmatian coast near Dubrovnik

 Last September I had the good fortune to accompany my friend Karen to her apartment on the Croatian island of Milna.  She insisted on doing all the driving, about 1,200 kilometres or 750 miles. I felt like chauffeured royalty.

Port at Milna

 En route we detoured to Varenna along Lake Como in northern Italy for a two-day break.  (See a previous post, “Bellissimo Lago di Como,” with many photos of the stunning area.) 

Serenity on the Dalmatian coast

The island of Mljet. There is a National Park on the western part of the island.

The journey from Varenna to Milna was long. We waited in a line of cars for almost two hours to cross the border from Slovenia into Croatia. When we reached Split after a day and half of driving from Varenna, my dedicated driver finally had a rest. We boarded our first ferry for the trip to her island. 

Sunset on the Adriatic

Ferries, all sizes,  are the mode of transport  among the Croatian islands. The country claims more than 1,000 islands, but most are small and uninhabited. Some ferries transport cars and people. Some are for passengers only.  Backpackers, families with kids and dogs in tow, old and young – all aboard.  We rode many during our week’s stay.

Karen’s apartment sits atop a hill not far from the ferry stop in Milna.  This was her last visit. She had recently sold the apartment which she had owned for 13 years.  The long trips to reach Milna were getting to be too much.

During our stay we visited other islands, swam in sparkling waters at idyllic beaches, and ate very well. Croatia is paradise for fish and seafood lovers.  We savored  monk fish with truffle sauce, black risotto with shrimp, fettucine with seafood, mussels, calamari, and scrumptious seafood platters. 

I was keen to visit Dubrovnik where I had been many, many  years ago on assignment for the newspaper Stars and Stripes. I remembered those monumental city walls.

Le Stradun, main artery in the old city of Dubrovnik

Instead of staying in the city, we splurged on a luxurious  coastal hotel.    A bus took us to town where we joined numerous other visitors to walk atop the walls which are considered one of the best-preserved medieval fortification systems in Europe. Wall statistics:  1,940 meters long encompassing five forts, 16 towers and bastions. And steps: 1,080.

A Dubrovnik must: A walk/climb on the ancient walls around the town
Get your exercise climbing 1,080 steps on Dubrovnik’s walls.

More steps, a grand total of 4,343, are within the city perimeter. And cats.  Everywhere. As a  cat lover, I was thrilled and spent too much time trying to get the perfect feline photo.  The kitties  are accustomed to all the attention and seem to pose for photos as they lounge in the middle of plazas, take a cat nap on restaurant chairs, curl up in flower pots, saunter through cobbled alleys.

Dubrovnik cats are considered its oldest citizens.  Their ancestors helped fight the bubonic plague carried by rats.  The plague ravaged the city in the 14th century when Dubrovnik, known as Ragusa, was a main trading hub between Europe and the Ottoman Empire.  Trading boats, coming from all around the Mediterranean,  brought goods to the city, ship cats who disembarked — and the plague.   The cats were welcomed and treated well for their help in fighting the disease.

12th century cathedral of Saint Tryphon in Kotor

Even more cats wander freely in Kotor, a coastal town in neighboring Montenegro.  I had read about the country’s spectacular coast and wanted to visit since it was so close  We set off to Kotor with scenery photo opps the entire way. Those travel articles did not exaggerate.  Kotor, like Dubrovnik, has a medieval old town, lively squares and twisty streets.

A stop for a stroll in Perast on the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

The Kotor cat is a symbol of good luck.  As in Dubrovnik, cats originally arrived via ships. They helped control the rat population, as well as snakes and other nasty critters from  nearby mountains. Today the cat also contributes to the Kotor economy.   Cat shops selling feline souvenirs and cat paraphernalia are popular.  There is a cat museum. As one blogger wrote, Kotor is for “cat-o-holics” (me).

Before we returned to Milna, we spent a day lounging at our hotel, marveling at the beauty of the surroundings, swimming in the clear water, and taking too many photos.  We did not want to leave.

I loved swimming in these waters, but was too chicken to jump from the rocks.

Croatia rates three Michelin stars plus – definitely “worth  a visit.” Croatians are friendly folk, and English is widely spoken.

 Thank you, Karen, guide extraordinaire, for sharing your  swansong journey with me.

More photos follow.

More on Hungary coming: FOOD.

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Croatia is a Mecca for sailors and their boats. In Milna we met a Texan with his boat.
Blissful beach in Montenegro
Primosten, a village and municipality on the Adriatic coast

Up on the farm

Agriturismo L’Oasi del Rossese

Way, way up:  A precarious auto journey slowly, cautiously climbing a skinny, twisty road.  We passed a few houses clinging to the hillsides, others hiding below the road down treacherously steep lanes.  Lots of overgrown vegetation all around.  More curves, hairpin turns, and more of each  

This was rough, remote terrain in Italy’s Liguria region above the Mediterranean.  I was driving, and hoping we would not meet a car coming in the opposite direction. I am not skilled at driving in reverse, and this road was barely wide enough for two vehicles.   How much farther?  I was nervous.  Did we miss it?

Alas, a small sign.  “ L’Oasi del Rossese,” our destination, an agriturismo above the town of Dolceacqua.  Agriturismo is a combination of the word for “agriculture” and “tourism” in Italian.  Agriturismi (plural) offer farm stay vacations and are very popular in Italy.  In addition to lodging, most offer meals featuring local specialties, often made with products from the farm.

Bob, Steve and Yoshie.

Farm hostess Marinella greeted us and showed  us to our rooms.  My brother Steve and sister-in-law Yoshie from Colorado were with us. First order of business was a welcome  coffee and cookies on the terrace overlooking deep green valleys, mountains and the Mediterranean in the distance.  Sadly, we had no sun to enhance the views.  Even with overcast clouds, it was splendid.

We heard English at a long table under a wall of balloons.  A group was celebrating a birthday.  I got up to take a photo and one of the gentlemen stopped me.  “I think I know you.  Are you a member of BA (British Association of Menton)”?   Yes.  We sat with Wayne and his wife Veronique, who was celebrating her 60th birthday, at a BA luncheon not long ago.   It was Veronique who told me about this agriturismo.  They have a farm nearby.

Marinella, husband Nino and son Stefano harvest grapes and olives on their 7,000 square meters of terrain.  The main farm product is wine, Rossese, hence the name, Oasis of Rossese, the noted red wine of Dolceacqua which we enjoyed with dinner.

Nino, Jordan (named after Michael Jordan), Stefano and Marinella.

We were hoping to see farm animals.  Their livestock consists of chickens and rabbits.  I did venture down to the chicken coop and rabbit hutch. The bunnies were big and beautiful.  I hated to think of their future.

Rabbit, Coniglio alla Liguria, is a local special and often served here.  Steve announced he would not eat it if it was to be our dinner. Luckily it was not, although I would have indulged.  The French are also fond of rabbit, and I prepare it occasionally. 

Yoshie and Steve hiked to the village of Perinaldo.

Food is a big attraction at agriturismi.  Our dinner was a never-ending, multi course feast.  Italian meals begin with antipasti. One after another, Marinella served us five different antipasti dishes:  Tomatoes with fresh sheep cheese, a slice of bruschetta, a frittata of zucchini and peas, stuffed zucchini flowers, and a tasty a slice of torte made with tiny fish from the Med.  This was followed by the pasta course, ravioli burro e salvia (ravioli stuffed with sage) – all homemade.  Instead of rabbit, for the main course we had both roast pork and goat with fagioli (white beans). The latter was our favorite. Dessert:  a strawberry tarte.  Plus, a bottle of Rossese.

Rossese (red wine) display in Dolceacqua

Marinella cooks, all from scratch. Nino lends a hand, stuffing the ravioli. They have a large vegetable garden, in addition to the chickens and rabbits, to supply the products for her cooking.  Stefano and Nino care for the grapevines and olive trees.  Stefano also makes the wine. Their production of both olive oil and wine is limited.  They only sell to guests and a few local clients.  

“People are happy here,” said Marinella.  She did admit that the first time is difficult due to the seemingly endless, challenging trek up the mountain. It is only seven kilometers, but they are long and very slow.  Many French come for the day from Nice just to eat, she said.   In August they have guests from Sweden, Denmark and Germany.

Dolceacqua, photo by Yoshie.

Agriturismo began in Italy in the 1960s when small farmers were struggling to make a profit.  Some abandoned their farms and went off to work in cities.  However, agricultural traditions are sacred in Italy.  In 1973 an official agriturismo farmhouse designation was created to help prevent farmers from abandoning their farms, and to offer tourists a farm stay so they could learn about rural life.

In some regions, but not all, farmers need a license to take part in agriturismo. We have visited nearby Dolceacqua many times.  Every time it seems there are more “agriturismo” signs on houses in the village.   What do they have to do with farms and agriculture?

Steve explores the Dolceacqua old town.

According to a spokesperson at the Dolceacqua tourist office, to be considered agriturismo they must show documents to prove they have land and crops.  Of course, many may have such up in the hills. But all of them?

Marinella tells me that today many agriturismo are just Bed and Breakfast accommodations and have nothing to do with agriculture.  I asked Arabella, my Italian friend with whom I study Italian. 

“E una giungla,” (It’s a jungle), she explained.  In Italian the expression refers to situations when laws are not respected, everyone does whatever he/she wishes  … a bit like Italian drivers.

Agriturismo breakfast — Bob, me and Yoshie. No one looks very happy, but we were very happy. The farm and surroundings are a treat.

AZ Agrituristica, L’Oasi del Rossese de Zullo Stefano, Loc Morghe, 18035 Dolceacqua, Italy, Tel. xx 39 347 8821298.

http://www.agriturismo.farm/en/farm-holidays/liguria/loasi-del-rossese-dolceacqua/33419 Double rooms with breakfast, 60 euro per night. Multi course meal with wine, 30 euro per person.

Siesta in Dolceacqua

More on Hungary coming: FOOD.

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France:  Macron vs. Le Pen

The world is watching

I am worried for France, for Europe, for the world.   Could Macron vs. Le Pen 2022 be a Clinton vs.Trump 2016 scenario? I was convinced Hillary would win.  The polls said so.  How could intelligent people vote for Trump?  The polls were wrong, although Clinton did win the popular vote.  French polls are predicting a Macron victory, but many detest the country’s president, just as many detested Hillary.  This is Le Pen’s third bid for the presidency.  In 2017 Macron triumphed with 66% of the vote.  It will be much, much closer this time.  And, the similarities between Le Pen and Trump are frightening.

 I am now a French citizen. I voted for the first time in France in round one of the country’s presidential election, and will vote in round two on April 24.  Much like the U.S., France is very divided. Macron, a centrist, is considered a president of the rich by many.  Too many feel left out, ignored by the political elite. They blame Macron for inflation just as so many Americans blame Biden for inflation.  They are against immigration and want to reclaim France for the French.

There was a mind boggling field of 12 candidates in round one. Macron and Le Pen beat out all others.

The French are also disillusioned with politics.  In the first round, 26% of voters abstained, the lowest turnout since the 2002 election.  This could be higher in the second round as many voters dislike both candidates. 

Le Pen, representing the far-right National Rally party, has softened her extreme right image. She is a die-hard cat lover and has appeared on television at-home interviews cuddling her felines. Her campaign is all about pocket-book issues, appealing to those suffering the pain of inflation. Her supporters believe she cares more about them than Macron does. She has gained mega points on the likeability chart.

Town hall in Roquebrune Cap Martin, France, where I vote.

“I’ll be the president of real life and above all of your purchasing power,”  she told a cheering crowd at a rally.  Although she has toned down her anti-immigration rhetoric, she is still a racist at heart. She wants to ban the hijab in public places and curb immigration.   She blames immigration for “feeding crime and ruining our social services.”  At the rally, her attacks on “anarchic immigration” drew the loudest applause.   She wants to withdraw France from NATO.  She has had close ties with Russia. 

While many dislike Macron, he has been given high marks for his handling of the economy, the pandemic and European affairs. He has been actively involved in diplomatic efforts to end the Ukraine war. He met with Putin. But, as the cost of living soars, all this takes a back seat.

In a guest essay which appeared in the New York Times, Dominique Moisi of the Institut Montaigne, a Paris-based think tank, had this assessment: “What is at stake on April 24 is nothing less than the future of democracy in France and in Europe.” 

Voting in r0und one of the French presidential election

I asked several friends and acquaintances whom they would vote for and why.  This is by no means an accurate sample of all French voters.  Nonetheless, here are their views:

Michele, caregiver for the elderly

“I am very disappointed in Macron.  He is for the rich.  I will vote for Le Pen.  She cares about inflation and the average person. But, it’s very difficult.  We don’t really have a choice.  I am not convinced one is better than the other.”

Thomas, retired American designer with dual citizenship

“I don’t’ like Macron.  I don’t like his style, his story. He is like an actor. It’s a shame the choice is so limited…Le Pen is a hard-working, dedicated politician. I like her.  I listen to her speeches.  She makes sense.  She is bright, intelligent.  We need change.  I will be forced to vote for her.  I think she will win.  A lot of people feel l like I do.”

Nicole, retired admin assistant

“I am not entirely in agreement with everything Macron has done, but in any case, I will not vote for Le Pen.  Macron is a positive image for France.  He is intelligent. He speaks English.  He has been good for foreign trade, but not for internal trade.”

Christophe, physical therapist, osteopath.

“I was against Le Pen and the extreme right for many years.  I am among those who think politics is under the control of world power… Macron was elected with the assistance of banks and powerful people… He thinks of Europe, not France.  I think many people will vote for Le Pen even if they don’t like her.  They want to block Macron. “

Christophe is an anti-vaxxer. Macron imposed strict vaccination controls, requiring medical personnel to be vaccinated to continue to work. Many refused and lost their jobs.  “Le Pen is against the vaccinations,” he said.  “She will assure that those who lost their jobs are rehired and repaid for their lost salary.”

 “I will vote for Le Pen.  I want to breathe.  I want change… Le Pen is not as bad as Macron… If we had another choice, I would vote for someone else.  We have a choice between la peste et le cholera (the plague and cholera).

Christine, retired teacher

“I will vote for Macron.  I am not against all he has done.  I agree with his program for Europe… He has not done badly for the economy.  During the pandemic he gave money to businesses and workers.  Inflation is 4 % in France, but 8% in Germany and 10% in Spain…. Le Pen is a racist.  She wants to withdraw from NATO.  She is against Europe.  She is an ally of Putin…. She wants to change the constitution…” Christine likens Le Pen to Viktor Orban, the anti-European nationalist prime minister of Hungary. 

Evelyne, retired veterinarian

“I will vote for Le Pen. I would like to see a woman president.  I cannot support Macon because of his vaccination policies.”

Arnaud, pharmacist

“It’s very close, but I will probably vote for Macron. Le Pen is too dangerous”

Veronique, caregiver for the elderly

She will vote blanc. In France voters are given an envelope at the polling stations. There is a table with separate stacks of the names of the candidates, each on a separate paper. And, one stack with blank papers.  Voters take a paper with the name of their candidate, or a blank piece of paper, go into a voting booth, and insert the paper naming their choice into the envelope which is then deposited into a transparent plastic box.

Depositing the envelope in the plastic box.

After casting their vote, they sign a register to confirm that they have voted. Several officials oversee the process. This is distinct from abstention. A blank vote shows the citizen has an interest in participating in the process, but refuses to make a choice.

“I suffered too much because I was not vaccinated. I lost my job.”  Veronique said.  However, she calls herself a “woman of the left,” She could not vote for Le Pen, hence she votes blanc.

The results of my poll give three votes to Macron, four to Le Pen, and 1 blank. If you add my vote for Macron, he gets four. A tie. Fortunately he is ahead in national polls, yet a Le Pen win is not impossible. Polls are not infallible.

The televised debate between Macron and Le Pen on April 20 could help Macron, who is known to be a skillful debater. He took Le Pen, who was poorly prepared, to the cleaners in the 2017 presidential debate. However, she learned her lesson and will be prepared this time

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Bellissimo Lago di Como

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” That is exactly the way I felt during a September visit to Lago di Como (Lake Como) in northern Italy. It is sublime. Glittering waters at the feet of Alpine mountain ranges. Photo-opp villages with cobbled alleys and flowered promenades. Baroque villas and impeccably manicured gardens.

Like me, lots of famous people have been seduced by the lake’s beauty and charm. Artists, writers, opera singers and aristocrats have homes on the lake shores. Not to mention Hollywood stars: George Clooney, Madonna, Richard Branson, Sylvester Stallone…

Varenna

My friend Karen, who knows the lake well, suggested we stop at Lake Como en route to her apartment in Croatia. I had fond memories of previous lake visits and was all in. She chose Varenna, considered one of the prettiest lakeside towns, as our destination for two nights. We enjoyed soaking up the vistas and the captivating ambiance of the lake and town.

The most heavenly time was high above the lakeside town of Tremezzo at the restaurant Al Veluu. Karen has friends who know the restaurant owner. She made a reservation mentioning her friends. We never did meet the owner. The waiter who greeted us was neither impressed nor happy to see us. It was close to 2 p.m.. The restaurant terrace was empty. He, no doubt, wanted to call it a day.

We had the spacious terrace and garden all to ourselves. The divine surroundings and spectacular views made up for the disappointing food. It was calm, peaceful, relaxing. We did not want to leave, but the warm sun was no longer so warm, and we needed to start the trek (taxi then 2 ferry rides) back to Varenna.

Karen chills out at Al Veluu.

Boats are the primary means of transportation for visiting Lake Como. Ferries of all sizes shuttle from town to town. The previous day we took a ferry to Bellagio, the “pearl” of the lake. Years ago husband Bob and I visited this treasure of a town. We visited the park and gardens of the grandiose Villa Serbelloni, hiked in the hills, took boat rides. It was all delightful.

Bellagio

Years later we returned with my mother who was overwhelmed. In addition to the gorgeous views and surroundings, she loved the shops. Bellagio, like most of the towns, has a plethora of boutiques and souvenir shops. On one visit, I purchased a large olive wood basket which I still treasure.

Varenna at night

In Varenna, we stayed at an Airbnb which promised a “bella vista” of the lake. What a joke. From a small bedroom window in a corner, if you twisted your neck you could spot the lake. Never mind. We had plenty of bella vistas as we climbed up and down the steep stairways in Varenna that lead to the lake, and strolled the path, Passegiata degli Innamorati (walk of lovers), along the shore.

Lake Como was the perfect start to my much-needed R&R break.

Thanks again to Karen, adventure in Croatia followed. Read all about it in an upcoming post. Don’t miss out.

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Bellagio

For more on Bellagio, read my report on a previous visit- click here.

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A Car for Christmas

Our Christmas present: A fire-engine red Suzuki Swift (2021). I named her Poppy. She is a delight.

Unfortunately, it’s a sorry saga that preceded the new car purchase. I know. It is a time to be merry and jolly, but I need to tell this story, and it has a happy holiday ending.

In mid-November we set out in our trusty Toyota Yaris Verso (Toyota 2). That car has its own story. (search “A Tale of Twin Toyotas”)

After canceling reservations three times over the past two years due to Covid restrictions, at last we headed north to our old stomping grounds, the Luberon area of France. We spent 14 happy years there and looked forward to visiting friends.

Previous visit to Table du Bonheur with friends Gayle and Ralph and chef Hans.

On day two of our visit, we proceeded to enjoy a delicious lunch at one of our favorite places, Table du Bonheur in the hinterlands. (search “Table of Happiness.) We anticipated savoring chef Hans’ innovative cuisine and visiting with him and his wife, Tiny.

It was not meant to be. As we climbed the hills, the Toyota struggled. I kept downshifting. Still little power. Bob was angry. “Get out. Let me drive.” I pulled over. We got out and the stench of something burning overwhelmed us. No one was driving that car anywhere.

I called our insurance. They were prompt, especially considering that it was a Sunday and we were far from towns. The car was pulled up on a tow truck bed. We climbed into the cabin and were deposited in Apt, the town where we were staying in a fabulous holiday apartment.

Much of the next three days was spent on the phone with the insurance, arranging taxis and rental cars, and figuring out what to do. Since the insurance company only dealt with certain taxi and rental car agents, it was very complicated. I was super stressed. Bob was lost.

Biding farewell to Toyota 2

Repair the car or bid it au revoir? We loved that car. We had made a special trip to Germany to purchase it. It was not classy, nor modern, but it filled our needs. It was assumed it need a new clutch: 1,000 euros plus. Was investing that sum in a 16-year-old car sensible? I was inclined to go ahead with the repair until the garage told me they would not even look at the car, much less do the required work, for at least 10 days. I called other garages. All the same. We could not stay that long.

We trekked to the garage, took care of the paperwork, and bid an emotional, tearful farewell to our precious Toyota 2.

In between phone frustration – press 2, then press *, then press 3…and listening to the same recitation too many times before reaching a live human being – fortunately there were some bright spots during our sojourn.

Our living room/kitchen at Cent Cinq

First: Our accommodations at Cent Cent, a gite or holiday apartment in Apt. Jen and Chris Mallon, daughter and son-in-law of our friends Mollie and David, have lovingly, tastefully restored an ancient house in the center of the town. Amazingly they have done all the work themselves. They have thought of everything and more: bathrobes, bath salts, coffee machine, plush bath towels, a well-equipped kitchen with supplies of olive oil, vinegar, sugar, etc. There are three guest apartments – all gorgeous, luxurious. Visit Apt and the Luberon, and enjoy Cent Cinq. For more, http://www.cent-cinq.fr

Emily and her Mercedes van

Second: Emily, a charming driver guide who took us to Marseille on Monday, the day after the catastrophe. I had an appointment at the American consulate there to have some important documents notarized. The insurance was unable to arrange a rental car on Sunday, and there was not enough time to get a car Monday morning for my 11 a.m. appointment. Emily to the rescue. She is an American from Oregon married to a Frenchman, a farmer who has acres of apple orchards. We chatted non-stop on the 5-hour journey to and from Marseille. I relaxed and forgot the trauma. Stay at Cent Cinq and let Emily chauffeur you to the sights, http://www.yourprivatechauffeurprovence.com

Third: Visiting the Apt Saturday market. It was always a treat, and this time did not disappoint. I loaded up on area favorites: olives, honey, aged cheese. I even found a few clothing bargains. 

Fourth: Admiring the scenery and landscape. I had forgotten how beautiful it is. There are no fall colors on the Cote d’Azur where we now live – just palm trees and pines. The Luberon hills were awash in hues of gold, orange, red. Herds of sheep grazed in grassy fields. I wished there had been time to stop for photos.

On the way to Apt, lunch in Manosque with Christine and Bernard

Fifth: Friends. We did not see all those we had hoped to see, but we did share meals with some.

David, who provides invaluable assistance with this blog, and Mollie with daughter Jen and husband Chris, and Bob, at Cent Cinq

Once we got home, the search for a car began. The rental agency gave me a Citroen C-3 Crossover, an SUV. This is not a car for the congested coastal area where we live. The roads are narrow and twisty. Motorcyclists weave in and out, and appear from nowhere for nerve- wracking moments. Parking garages are a challenge. I pleaded numerous times for a smaller car to no avail. I was not comfortable driving that car and did crash into a parking garage wall, scraping the front.

Jen hard at work at Cent Cinq.

The plan was to buy new used car, but decent used cars were hard to find. I was told the 2022 cars have been slow to arrive due to supply chain problems, hence a dearth of used cars. Instead of spending days on the phone with the insurance, I was calling car dealers.

The search dragged on for three weeks before I found Poppy. I wanted a red car. I needed something bright and bold. And, I wanted to defy the French who have bizarre notions about red cars. A friend urged me not to buy a red car, suggesting that it would be damaged by a red car hater. Others confirmed the French aversion to red cars. It is true. There are not many red cars on the road here. French drive boring black and gray vehicles. Some go for white – not too exciting either.

Here’s to red cars and Christmas cheer!

Happy Holidays to all Tales and Travel readers. Thanks for your fidelity.

Friend Jinny visited us at Cent Cinq and brought me this beautiful rose, “Esperance” (hope). I needed it, and cherished the rose.

If not a follower of this blog, sign up. Your address is kept private. In the new year, I’ll write about my adventure last summer to Lake Como and then Croatia.

If you missed my blog post on Menton’s vibrant market (above), you can see it now on Travel Squire. https://travelsquire.com/menton-market-friendly-folk-and-french-favorites/