Here we are again

Wow, it has definitely been awhile since I have dusted off the old travel blog. The good news is, that isn’t because I haven’t been traveling (New Orleans, Portland, Indianapolis, Orlando etc) but rather that I seem to have just gotten lazy. But that changes today!

Exactly 11 days from now I am off on another MAJOR adventure. With an upcoming milestone birthday, I wanted to go BIG so started looking at options over a year ago. I eventually narrowed it down to 3 main choices: Africa, Galapagos or Asia.

After careful planning and thought, I decided that China and Japan would be the next stamps on my passport. Any past reader of this blog knows that I also love cruising and this trip allows me to combine land tours with a 7 day cruise from Shanghai to Tokyo. How awesome is that! So much that I love (sushi, cruising, ramen, cool places, sushi, amazing temples, dumplings, interesting history, sushi) rolled up into one trip.

In essence, our itinerary looks like this:

Oct 4-5- 14hr flight from Toronto to Shanghai

Oct 5-8 – Shanghai, Baby!

October 9-16 – Cruise with stops in Busan (South Korea), Otaru (Japan) and Hakodate (Japan) before ending in Tokyo.

Oct 17 – Tokyo

Oct 18 – Mount Fuji

Oct 19-20 – Kyoto

October 21 – Home Sweet Home

So much planning has gone on over the past year and it is very exciting to finally be so close to departure. Although, to be honest, I am quite concerned about the 14hr flight that starts it all off. I generally can’t sleep on planes and this will be a real test as it will also be the longest non-stop flight I have ever taken. Should be an adventure in itself!

Any long flight travel tips welcome!

Our last day started early as we had to catch our taxi back into Rome. It was slightly chaotic getting off the ship as it felt like everyone was trying to get off at the same time. The elevators were packed but with some patience we finally made it out to the port. We were travelling once again with the same two couple we had arrived with 10 days before. It was nice to catch up about the trip and everyone’s adventures on the drive to the Rome airport

The couples we were travelling with both were catching flights that day whereas Mom and I were only leaving the following morning. It was our plan to check-in to our airport hotel and then catch the train for one last day in Rome.

Lucky for us, the wonderful driver from Rome Cabs had no issues with dropping us at our airport hotel after leaving the rest of our party at the airport. We had been prepared to get off at the airport and wait for the hotel shuttle but the driver would not hear of it.

It was a quick drive from the port to the airport and we were dropped off at our hotel around 10am. As expected our room wasn’t ready, but they did store our luggage for us. We then hopped the hotel shuttle bus back to the airport and then grabbed the train into Rome. Beyond the multiple steps, it was a very easy process and the train to Termini Station was about 30-45 minutes.

Exiting Termini station, we stopped for a quick but very expensive bite to eat. Termini is the central rail and subway station so prices in that area are steep but overall it was a good snack. We then proceeded to wander around Rome and got to hit some of the sights we had missed at the start of our trip.

We again found ourselves on Via del Corso and continued to wander in the opposite direction to the Victor Emmanuel monument we had seen during our first days in Rome. This was our last day and so that meant indulging in more delicious gelato. We encountered more amazing churches filled with amazing art and continued towards Piazza del Popolo.

Gelato is the perfect snack as we reached the Piazza and sat to watch the people pass by.

Our hosts at our B&B Peace of Rome had recommended a lookout point where you could see most of Rome. It was a hill next to the Piazza so after we finished our gelato, we headed up the hill to see if the view lived up to the hype. I absolutely believe that it did…what do you think?

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From here we began our wander back to Termini station with a stop for one last margherita pizza before heading back to the hotel.

The trip had been amazing and we were sad to leave Rome. It was my second visit (Mom’s First) to the city and I would not hesitate to go again. It had been an intense 15 days but so worth every sore muscle and early morning. We were uncertain about cruising but I would do it again in a heartbeat; it was so much more than we were expecting. It was a good thing we had another trip planned (Vegas Baby!) or our the post-vacation depression could have been much worse😉

Naples was the last stop on our cruise and it was a little sad to arrive knowing this would be our last day. We had enjoyed the cruise portion of our trip more than either of us expected and we were both sad to leave the Celebrity Reflection the next day. It was easy to get used to the service and amazing food. Home just wasn’t going to compare……

Dawn in Naples

Dawn in Naples

As I mentioned in my last post, our plans for Naples/Amalfi Coast had to be adjusted due to illness with our travel partners. Instead, Mom and I joined one of the Celebrity shore excursions. This excursion still covered the Amalfi coast and Sorrento but we would miss seeing Ravello and Positano.  However, stuff happens while travelling and it is best to adjust and adapt with whatever the new plan turns out to be. This new excursion would include a 90-minute drive down the Amalfi coast with stops in both Sorrento and the town of Amalfi.

We gathered in  the Reflection Theatre early in the morning and were assigned to buses and given lovely stickers with that bus number on it…because we didn’t stick out as tourists quite enough. We then waited until our number was called and headed out to our assigned bus. Everyone was getting loaded when the last couple on board started to make a fuss about the only seats left being in the back. Apparently “she” get motion sickness and absolutely can’t sit in the back. You know what would have helped with that? Not being last on the bus…seriously! Anyway, they were then assigned to another bus (because each excursion had multiple buses, I think ours had 5).  Once that was settled, we were off.

During our drive out of Naples, our tour guide started to tell us some of the history of the area and we quickly learned that when the tour guide is talk, no one else is allowed. In fact, he talked to us like we were children the entire time…extra fun!

Now, I have been on some crazy drives during my travels. Taxi trips in Boston and Lima and one eyes closed, rediscovering religion bus ride up a mountain in Peru stand out as particularly terrifying. However, they honestly had NOTHING on this drive. Now, it was aggravated due to the size of the bus and the fact that the road was barely big enough for 2 small cars. The road is similar to the Cabot trail in Nova Scotia only windier and higher and each turn was its own mini adventure. However, it was when we turned a corner and encountered another bus that things really got interesting. Our bus had to back up with cars behind and on a curve. There was some serious praying going on. In the end, the other bus passed by so closely you could smell what the other passengers had for lunch (a statement made by member of our tour group). I have no idea what our driver makes for a tour but it is in no way enough.

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We had a 90 minute drive to Sorrento where we stopped at a local store for some kind of wood working demo. This is one of the main issues I have with Cruise line tours, you have no choice but to attend whatever demo they have planned. Sure, 3rd party tours try it as well, but if you say that you want no demonstrations while planning and easily avoid them.

After the demo, we had some time to explore Sorrento. Mom and I spent this time wandering through some shops and picking up the last of our souvenirs. I picked up a cross body leather bag which I love! I really wish that I had picked up a few others pieces as well but overall I am still very happy with my bag.

From Sorrento, we continued down the Amalfi Coast to the resort town of Amalfi. Along the way we stop at a cliff side restaurant (along with the other buses) for lunch. It was included in the price of the tour and we were quickly ushered into a very large room and served both a pasta and meat course. Overall, the food was ok but the views were stellar.

View for Lunch

View for Lunch

We arrived at Amalfi in early afternoon and spend the next few hours wandering the quaint little village. We explored the many shops in the area and enjoyed some absolutely delicious gelato.

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Afterward, we hopped back on the bus for our return trip to Naples. Luckily for my stomach (it had not been enjoying the windy roads) we took the highway back; not nearly as scenic but straight. Before returning to the dock, we made one last stop at a cameo factory. Where I did find the demonstration interesting, in no way was I remotely interested in buying cameos. I had no ideas that a market still exited for these. Anyway, after a solid 30+ minute stop, we were finally on our way back to the ship.

Overall, it is an ok tour and we still got to see some of the sights we wanted but it is unlikely I would go with another cruise tour as a first choice.

View of Mount Vesuvius as we left Naples

View of Mount Vesuvius as we left Naples

The rest of the night was spent trying to pack everything we brought with us, along with everything we bought throughout the trip into our suitcases. One of us, I won’t mention who, even had to buy another bag to fit it all. We were catching an early taxi back into Rome and did not want to have to deal with packing in the morning.

Fortunately, we still had another day in Rome before we flew back home to Canada. The cruise had been amazing and we were looking forward to one last wander through Rome.



We had one last At Sea Day before docking in Naples for our final port of the cruise. The last few days had been quite the whirlwind and an At Sea Day was most welcome. There were tons of fun activities going on throughout the ship and it was hard to choose but there were two that caught my eye and moved to the top of the list. Additionally, it was the official 1 year anniversary of the Reflection’s first sailing and there were birthday celebrations planned to celebrate.

The first must-see event was a tour of the galley. After enjoying the amazing food all week, I was really interested in seeing what the behind the scenes looked like. It seemed that I wasn’t the only one interested as there had to be a few hundred other cruisers waiting as well.

They gave everyone a group number and slowly started to work their way through them. While we waited, we had mimosa’s and the head chef entertained us with stories and answered questions from the crowd.

His most interesting comment was:

“The UN could learn something from us. I have over 70 nationalities in my kitchen and there are no problems!”  – In the tour, we find out that everyone has a job to do and very clear expectations. This is no doubt what helps with everything running so smoothly!

His biggest challenge is simply cooking for so many people on a limited menu; this was evidenced by the number of people asking why Chinese, French, Hungarian etc. food was not served. Many people seemed to want a personalized menu…definitely a challenge on a ship with over 3000 guests.

Finally my group number was called and we headed back into the galley with one of the sous-chefs for our tour. We first saw the cold food preparation area and storage fridges. They all have timers so they know how long the items have been inside. The food safety requirements for a ship are extremely strict as they can’t afford an outbreak.

I can tell you that the kitchen runs like a well-oiled machine. They were prepping the soups and desserts for that evening’s meal. It was amazing to see the organized chaos and this was during their down time. The menu runs on a 13 day rotation and they have a massive board that goes through each days menu, ingredients etc. I would have loved more time to explore the menus but we had to keep moving.

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Menu Board

As I mentioned above, it was Reflection’s 1st birthday so a number of birthday cakes were in the process of being created which whetted my excitement for the upcoming festivities.

After the Galley tour, I was off to another cooking-centric event in the main auditorium. Those that know me, know that I have a fascination with the Food Network show, “Iron Chef America”. So imagine my delight when I saw a “Stars Chef Cooking Completion” listed on the activities schedule.  I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was AWESOME. Loosely based on Iron Chef with audience members acting as sous-chefs and judges to two of the main chefs on board and hosted by the Cruise Director and the Head Chef. It was fun and absolutely hysterical to watch. One of my highlight moments from the entire cruise.

Naples was our port the next day and we had joined a tour that another member of Cruise Critic had organized. Unfortunately, we heard from them early in the day that they were sick and cancelling the tour. This was too bad as the tour was exactly what we had wanted but was way too expensive for just Mom and I to do on our own. At that late date, we couldn’t book another 3rd party tour so we decided to choose from the ship excursion offerings. We selected the one that most resembled our cancelled tour and hurried down to the excursion desk to book. It is amazing to me that this tour cost us more than the 3rd party one would have and wasn’t nearly as good and had triple the amount of people. Anyway, you have to adapt as you go in those cases and in the end it was a pretty good experience + now we know what a cruise excursion entails. More on that in my next post: Amalfi Coast.

This was also our last formal night of the sailing and everyone was decked out accordingly, especially all the ship’s officers. Mom and I tried to go for supper at our usual time (7pm) but it seems like the rest of the ship had the same idea. We had to wait around 40 minutes but good-naturedly spent the time down at the Passport Bar enjoying a few pre-dinner cocktails. This was the first night we had to wait and so we weren’t overly inconvenienced. It turns out that issue wasn’t that everyone came at the same time but rather than many of the tables were lingering over coffee and dessert causing the backlog.

We were seated eventually and the food was once again excellent and I was excited to finish it all off with a baked Alaska. This is a dessert that I have seen on TV but never had the opportunity to try…which is amazing considering it combines two of my favorite things – ice cream and meringue!

Baked Alaska...yum!

Baked Alaska…yum!

After dinner, we wandered out to the Grand Foyer to watch the birthday celebration. It was joyful occasion and everyone toasted a Happy Birthday to the Reflection. The captain made a lovely speech and then a pile of balloons dropped from ceiling and the dancing started.

Mom and I then wandered the 3 feet over to the Martini bar where I introduced her to the wonderful world for Sour Apple Martini’s. The bartenders here were definitely on the ball as we had new drinks before our last ones were finished.

Good times!

Good times!

All in all, it was an amazing night and we still had one more port to go: Naples and the Amalfi Coast!

Now that we were all rested up from our stop on Mykonos, it was time to tour the wonderful city of Athens. For Athens. For Athens, I picked a bit of an unconventional tour as we spent the morning in Athens but then moved outside the city for a drive down the coast to Cape Sounion in the afternoon. We wanted to see as much of Greece as we could in a short period of time, which meant not spending the afternoon in museums as many of the other tours we looked at recommend.

We used Private Greece Tours and Nikos was a huge help in organizing everything and answering my questions. I posted the tour on the Cruise Critic message board and had a group of 11 which made the tour quite reasonably priced.

Our driver, Nicholas was waiting for us as we exited the ship and within minutes we were zipping through Athens traffic (yikes) on our way to the Acropolis. We were lucky enough to be one of the first groups to arrive and had great views of the entire site for the first 20 minutes or so before the larger ship tours arrived.

The Acropolis is an ancient citadel located on a high a hill above the city of Athens and contains the remains of many ancient buildings. The most interesting of which for me were: the temple of Athena Nike, the Propylaea, the Erechtheum, Old Temple of Athena, and of course the most famous: the Parthenon.

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Like many of the great architectural sites around Europe, the Parthenon is currently being restored so we only had restricted views around scaffolding. Luckily, it was amazing even with the limited views and I would love to see it again once the restoration project is finished. The project started in 1975 and is reportedly nearing completion.

There was an extra cost to have a guide on this tour so we forewent one in favour of using the Rick Steve’s audio guides. I must say that this worked out wonderfully and I really enjoyed listening to the audio guide. It is organized well and very easy to follow. I would definitely use these again.

After the Acropolis, Nicholas zipped us over to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch the changing of the guard. Nicholas gave us a bit of background information on the traditional uniform these guards wear. It is definitely an interesting uniform and has a history to match. The uniform has evolved from the clothes worn by the klephts who fought the Ottoman occupation of Greece.

The changing of the guards is an interesting process to watch as the guards move almost in a dance, they move in a very slow and highly stylized manner with which is really cool to watch.

After the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we had a brief stop at stadium where the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896.

Olympic Stadium

Olympic Stadium

We then headed over to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The temple is a huge ruined temple in the center of Athens that was dedicated to Zeus, king of the Olympian gods. Construction began in the 6th century BC but it was not completed until the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD, almost 638 years after the project had begun.

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From here we drove up to a lookout point with amazing panoramic views of Athens. A must-see spot if you are ever in Athens!

Now it was time for our drive down the “Greek Riviera” to Cape Sounion. On the way, we stopped at a small taverna for lunch where I enjoyed some lamb slovaki and Mom’s had a plate of small fish and it was literally a plate of whole small fish LOL. Definitely not something you’d generally find on a menu here.

Greek Riviera

Greek Riviera

The entire drive was along their gorgeous coast up to Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon. According to legend, Cape Sounion is the spot where Aegeus, king of Athens, leapt to his death. Every year, the Athenians were forced to send 7 men and 7 women to Minos as tribute. These youths were placed in a labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur. Theseus (Aegeus’ son) volunteered to go and attempt to slay the beast. He told his father that if he survived the contest, he would hoist a white sail upon his return. Theseus was successful in overcoming the Minotaur but forgot to change the black sail. Upon seeing the black sail, Aegeus despaired for his son and threw himself off the cliff in his grief. This is also why that body of water is known as the Aegean Sea.

The whole site is beautiful; from the columns of the ruined temple to the view out to sea.

I had a bit of excitement on my way back to the van as another group member stopped to tell me that the van engine wouldn’t start. Luckily, the gods were on our side and it was already started by the time I got back to the vehicle. Not taking that for granted, we all hopped on and we quickly on our way back to Athens and our ship.

Athens is definitely a city I would like to explore more. I missed not having time to wander around the different neighbourhoods but that is simply a reason to return!

Once back on the ship, Mom and I rested before heading out for dinner. As I have previously mentioned in past posts, the Celebrity Reflection has an excellent selection of restaurants. We had been hearing such amazing thing that we decided to give another (besides Bistro on 5)  additional cost restaurants a try. After some conferring, Mom and I decided on Qsine. According to Celebrity, “Qsine® offers a culinary journey that delivers elements of surprise and delight.” I must say that it lived up to that hype. The menu comes on an ipad with fun videos and all the dishes have unique factors to them. For example, our sushi course had a salmon roll dipped in Doritos. It sounds kind of yuck, but was amazing! I now think all sushi should be dipped in some form of chip😉

Sushi pops

Sushi pops

We also had some of the best ceviche I have EVER had! I would go back for this dish alone.

Tiger Shrimp & Bay Scallops, Lobster and Salmon Ceviche

Tiger Shrimp & Bay Scallops, Lobster and Salmon Ceviche

We also discovered that despite both loving all things shellfish, neither of us likes escargot. The idea of the menu is a selection of small plates but you still get full very quickly and by dessert I desperately wanted my yoga pants. The dessert menu came in a fun puzzle box. Mom choose some sort of cake and I went with do it yourself cupcakes. It was an excellent way to end an amazing meal.

For Mykonos, we decided to take a “wandering” relaxed approach to give us time to relax and recharge after the busy days of Istanbul and Ephesus.  Our docking experience here was much different than that of Santorini. For Mykonos, we arrived at 7am and docked so it was a simply matter of leaving the ship whenever you wanted and we had until 6pm to see all the sights. The dock was located about 1-2 kms way from the main town and we decided to take the ship transfer rather than walk the very narrow and sidewalk less road. Mykonos is full of beautiful windy, tiny streets. I loved peaking down them.

Mykonos main industry is tourism and so shops and restaurants were the name of the game. We spent much of the morning touring the windy streets and browsing in and out of shops.  The most exciting of which was a local Art Gallery where Mom and I each purchased some pieces (Mom – 3 small originals and myself a large print). The main artist featured in the gallery was the brother of the owner and he primarily used watercolours. I have never really been a fan of this medium but I simply loved the piece as soon as I saw it. I am delighted with how it turned out once I got it home and framed.

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Mykonos is famous for its windmills. These windmills are no longer in use but are still a wonderful sight on the skyline. It was a beautiful walk up the small streets to find them. I found they were much bigger than I was expecting and really interesting to see up-close and personal.

After looking around the windmills, we continued our meandering through the shops, picking up souvenirs as we went. It was in one of these stops that I realized my cardigan had gone missing. I had taken in off during our trek up to the windmills and tossed it over my bag strap. I attempted to re-trace my steps but sadly it could not be found.  Sigh….I still miss that cardigan and I hope whoever picked it up is enjoying it.

By this time, we were getting hungry and in Mykonos you seem to have two choices – reasonably priced with no view or crazy priced with a great view. We decided to go with the great view and ordered ourselves the ultimate seafood platter. It seems to be a European tradition that sides are ordered separately from the main course, so in the end we had a plate of fish which frankly was good enough for us. It may have been a bit pricey but it was a great deal of fun to sit overlooking the harbor and watch all the other tourists wander by.

We walked around a bit more after eating before catching the shuttle back to the ship. I feel no need to return to Mykonos other than if I wanted to spend some time on a beach people watching (obviously this means going earlier in the year that October).  Beyond that, 3-4 hours works for seeing all the sights. It was nice to relax a bit before our next action packed stop: Athens.

Our second Turkish port, Kusasdsi, turned out to be the dark horse port of  our entire trip. I had never even heard of this area before booking the cruise and all I really knew was that the main attraction of this region is Ephesus, the ruins of an ancient city. I was excited to see it but a bit leery as we had already seen so many ruins already in Rome.

Our tour guide and driver pick us up from the dock and we began our day with the 30-40 minute drive out to Ephesus. Our guide took this time to review Turkey’s amazing history with us.  The Turks are passionate and very proud of their country, which came through loud and clear in our discussion. He did such a great job that I even made a note to find out more once I returned home.

We, like most of the other tours, started our tour of the area with Ephesus so it was quite packed in places. My first impression of the site was kind of blah but then we turned a corner and voila – the place was huge. It is similar to Pompeii in layout but only about 10% of Ephesus is open to the public. It was fascinating to see the layout of the city complete with roads and squares. With only a little imagination, you can easily picture people bustling around, and going about their daily chores and activities.

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I found the terrace houses particular interesting. This was an area of the site what was covered for its protection while the archaeologists worked to uncover and piece together the housing structures and mosaics. It is very cool to see the ancient plumbing systems where the kitchen and bathrooms were located. This section requires another ticket but is definitely worth the added expense.

Some of the other key features of Ephesus were:

Library of Celsius:

Library of Celsius

Library of Celsius

Carving of Nike, where the tour guide claims the current Nike brand swoosh comes from.

Nike - do you see the swoosh?

Nike – do you see the swoosh?

Open air stadium – It was huge…hard to see the sheer size in the picture.

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After leaving Ephesus we headed up into the hills to visit the House of the Virgin Mary. This building is considered a Catholic and Muslim shrine located on Mt. Koressos.

House of the Virgin Mary

House of the Virgin Mary

Apparently, the house was discovered in the 19th century by following descriptions from visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a Roman Catholic Nun. The Catholic Church has never officially declared the site but a number of pope’s including Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have visited and blessed the house.

Below the house is a wishing wall where you can write down and leave a prayer.

Wishing Wall

Wishing Wall

By this time, we were all feel a bit peckish and stopped at a lovely restaurant on our way down the mountain. This was a bit on an unusual restaurant as I think it mainly serves tour groups. Regardless, the food was definitely as homemade as you can get. You could clearly see what looked like the grandmother cooking in the attached kitchen the entire time we were there. The food was buffet style and although I had no clue what I was eating, it was all pretty darn good. Overall, I would say that I am a fan of Turkish food and wish there were more restaurants around to try even more…or at least understand what I had eaten.

After lunch, we drove to Şirince, a Greek village not far from Ephesus. It is a bit of a tourist trap but a pretty spot to walk around and try a number of their local fruit wines. We wandered around for about an hour, long enough for me to drawn into yet another scarf store. The store owner and his family evidently have been the scarf business for 50+ years and all his scarves were handmade by his family members just kilometers from his shop. I have my doubts that this is true but it was a good story and I ended up with 2 more scarves added to my growing collection. To my defense, these were neck scarves rather than the wraps I picked up in Istanbul.

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Next, we headed to the Temple of Artemis, one of the 7 wonders of the Ancient world. Sadly, only a lone pillar remains of the once massive temple. Below is a re-creation of what it originally may have looked like. This stop was a bit disappointing, definitely should have done a bit more research. It was interesting to see but is a 5 minute stop.

While perusing the many, many websites planning for our trip, I came across a suggestion to visit one of the many leather outlets in the area.  We asked the guide to recommend an outlet on our way back to the port. The leather jackets were gorgeous and there were tons of them, however, they were also hugely expensive. When we entered the outlet, a salesman came over to tell us to ignore the prices as we should just make an offer and he guaranteed we could find something that worked. However, when the prices start in the thousands of dollars, it would have taken extreme bargaining and I was all bargained out.

We arrived back at Kusasdsi with some time to wander the many shops surrounding the port. I picked up a Fez (Fezzes are Cool) and mom picked up a few key chains and a pair of Birkenstocks.

It was the end to another great day and we were really looking forward to a more relaxed pace at our next stop, Mykonos!

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