"" Writer's Wanderings: January 2024

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Exploring Venice (Florida not Italy)

 Entering our villa in the Gran Paridiso community was relatively easy. We arrived a little early but when we contacted our leasing agent, she quickly gave us the entrance information we needed to move in. Gran Paridiso is a gated community in what we thought was Venice, FL but it turned out to actually be in North Port. The zip code assigned is for Venice but they pay their taxes to North Port who provides the city services. 

It took a little organization in learning what was and what wasn't in the villa as far as supplies went. In Key Largo's condo, there were always some condiments and lots of cleaning supplies. There was only a small smattering of cleaning supplies (no rags to use) and absolutely nothing in the super clean refrigerator/freezer. Oh wait! There were ice cubes. 

Lake Jervy

Wellen Park is a developing community only about a mile and a half away and has a Publix, as well as several restaurants, a Great Clips and a nail salon. And for Bob, the all important Ace Hardware. He can always find something to tinker with. We hit the Publix and did a major shopping trip for the absolute necessities. Over the next week, we'd find more things we needed and hopefully will get all used up before we leave in March. If not, our kids who are not far away can expect a windfall of leftovers. 

The all important pickleball courts were our next adventure. Gran Paridiso has six permanent courts and two that are flexible. It's not much different than back home where rules are a bit loose for rotation time on the court but for the most part, it works well and we were welcomed in. Pickleball people are usually very friendly no matter where you play.

Always smiling

The pool is huge but it does have to serve a community of 2,000 homes. We could only look at it for the first week since the temperatures were not conducive to swimming. Getting in would not be bad. It's heated.  Getting out would be a chilly run for cover. 

There is a nice gym with saunas as well. In the same center, there is a craft room and card room with two billiard tables. We found a group that plays hand and foot cards (Wisconsin style) every Tuesday and learned a few new rules and strategies. In the building that houses the offices and a huge lounge area, there is also a library full of books. 

Sharky's pier

The beaches of Venice are about twenty-five minutes from us. We found a place called Sharkey's that has a pier reaching out into the water where many people stroll and/or fish. The beach is known for finding shark's teeth and one warmer day we saw lots of kids with screen scoops searching the sand for good finds. 

Next to Sharkey's however, was a beautiful park and we enjoyed exploring and finding places where we could watch sunsets in the future. Our first couple of weeks were a bit cloudy, rainy and some days, downright cold. But it didn't snow!

Before leaving home, we had done a little research online to find a church to attend. We happened upon a group called The Church at Wellen Park which is five minutes from our villa and is a start-up church that meets at a small college campus. When we were first married, we were members of a start-up church. This has brought back fond memories. It's a nice congregation who are very friendly and welcoming. 

The campus of the college has a natural habitat in the middle of the acreage. It is a large lake named after a professor, Lake Jervy. There are some herons and other cranes that can be observed as well as a few alligators of course. The trail around the lake is pleasant to walk and we've visited several times already.

Gran Paridiso is not without nice places to walk and I have often walked from the community center back to the villa (about a mile) past several ponds. The interesting walk however is when Bob and I go the other direction to the two ponds by the back entrance near our villa. There are a couple of resident alligators there who come out when the sun shines. Oh and some very brave birds that dot the shoreline.

Big Hank

While the villa does not have the beautiful view that the Key Largo condo did, it is close to lots of interesting places, not to mention about twenty minutes away from our kids. We've already had a football watch party, a swim excursion, an evening with the conservatory they are part of that educated us on sawfish. One evening we were able to join them for a play at their high school and look forward to going to an open house for the marine lab they are involved with at their school. 

We are finding great places to eat including two that are on the Myakka River not far from us. One of them features BBQ and the best brisket I've had in a long time. Not sure about the alligator meat although they do have two very large stuffed alligators that decorate the indoors. Then there's the restaurant that we ate at just by chance with a spaghetti sauce that outdoes Olive Garden by far. Of course we had to find a Saturday breakfast spot. We found two. One which is similar to our favorite back home and another that is a pleasant alternative.

Sandhill crane

On Sundays, there is a farmer's market at what's called Wellen Park Downtown. It is a cluster of restaurants and big central area where live music is scheduled on weekends. My guess is this will be the center of all the development planned for the area. So far at the farmer's market we've found some nice veggies, strawberries and Bob's favorite bread and butter pickles and my favorite, soft pretzels.

A big find for Bob is a local ham radio club and they have invited him to join in on their winter field day. 

One of the things unique to this area are the sandhill cranes. They are about four feet tall when they stand up straight. The ones in Gran Paridiso don't seem to be afraid at all of people. The one I managed a picture of walked part of the way next to me on my morning stroll back  to the the villa from pickleball. 

We have only made a dent in the places to explore around here. We have plenty of time left for more great finds.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Rest of Our Migration

Originally our migration south was to follow our usual route of home to Dobson, NC, to Fernandina Beach, FL, to our new destination in Venice, FL. Unfortunately when Bob tried to book our usual Hampton just off of I77 in Dobson, there were no vacancies. Unusual because we were booking months in advance. He booked our second choice, the Hampton in Mount Airy. He continued to book our stays and restaurant choices (we have some favorites) and paid ahead making them impossible to cancel.

Of course then he decided we needed to do something more with the Christmas season and we found the information for Christmas at Biltmore. That meant that after our Biltmore visit, we would have to backtrack a bit to Mount Airy for our stay there.

Mount Airy is Andy Griffith's hometown. It is Mayberry for all intents and purposes. Stores full of Mayberry themed products dot the downtown streets. We did a great tour on our own a few years ago and I posted about it. You can find it here: Mayberry USA.

It was still very cold and a bit windy so a lot of exploring in Mayberry was not going to happen. We were hungry when we arrived and sought out a place to eat. Where we parked was close to Barney's Cafe so we ducked in there. Lots of good choices on the menu that struck a chord with us. I ordered a PBJ with fruit cup and Bob got a grilled cheese sandwich, his favorite. It's a tiny cafe but very nostalgic.

We visited a couple of stores and then retreated to our hotel room for the rest of the afternoon. Dinner was at our favorite boutique restaurant at the Shelton Vineyards, Harvest Grill. We sat by a crackling fireplace and enjoyed a delicious meal.

On to Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island. Our favorite little French restaurant has been changed to a more contemporary restaurant and we had to sit outside on the patio with the aid of area heaters to keep us warm. It was New Year's Eve and they were busy.  The plan was to walk down to the marina and watch the shrimp drop (a giant lighted shrimp they drop from a big crane). Unfortunately we didn't realize the drop wasn't at midnight. It was at seven o'clock followed by fireworks. We did get to see the fireworks. The early hour for the drop and fireworks explained why there were so many kids around to celebrate.

We arrived at Gran Paradiso in Venice the afternoon of New Year's Day and after a phone call to the management rental company, we received our information to get into our villa. The villa is lovely but we have given up our wonderful view of the Florida Bay for grass and shrubs but we are closer to where our kids now live. The things you do for grandkids.....

Tuesday, January 09, 2024

Exploring Biltmore--The Conservatory

 There have been many indoor garden displays that we have explored but I think this is my favorite. The conservatory sits inside the walled garden. At first we thought it wasn't open until ten and we had arrived at nine when the Biltmore app said it was open. There didn't seem to be any activity, few cars in the parking lot and from the back of it, it didn't look open.

We shivered as we walked around to the front thinking if it was closed, we'd explore the garden area inside the wall and hope the wind wasn't as sharp there. 

The garden is probably quite beautiful at other times of the year but winter was not kind. Roses had lost their blooms and it was difficult to tell what the other plants were since they were in their dormant stage. 

We walked through the arbor that runs down the center of the walled garden but just as we were about to give up and sit in the car for a bit, we noticed other people arriving. A try of the front door rewarded us with entry.

Given the Christmas season, there were plenty of poinsettias, some I've never seen before. Back home, during the season, many poinsettias are artificially colored and its obvious. Here, there were several that were variegated. Some were a yellow green and I saw one that was a purplish color. None looked artificially colored. 

Larger shrubs and trees, including a lemon tree and several orange trees, must have been there for a long time. Some of them had extremely large roots and I wondered how the horticulturalists kept them contained in the walled sections where they grew.

Lots of gorgeous orchids were dotted through out the several exhibit rooms. Again, some colors and shapes that I've never seen before.

Blooming plants and foliage were fascinating, unusual and, when the sun emerged, were caught in the spotlight of sun beams through the glass windows. 

Before I forget, I do need to mention that the conservatory dates back to 1895, the year that the Vanderbilts moved in. It was a collaboration of George Vanderbilt, Frederick Law Olmsted (the estate's landscape architect) and Richard Morris Hunt (the mansion's architect).

There are more gardens to explore to one side of the front of the mansion but with the cold weather, we were done once we left the warmth of the conservatory.

I need to mention as well that there are all sorts of hiking trails that wind around the estate where you can take in the beautiful rolling fields, shaded forested areas and ponds and lakes. 

Lots to see but we had miles to go yet before reaching Florida. Hopefully it would be warmer.

Meanwhile, enjoy the pictures. I couldn't stop taking them.

Monday, January 08, 2024

Biltmore--Lunch in a Stable?

After two hours exploring the Biltmore mansion, it was definitely time to eat. Still cold outside, we decided against the outdoor cafe even if it was tented and had some heat lamps. There were quite a few people milling around inside the stables and sitting on the few benches that were there apparently waiting for the call that their table was ready. 

We thought we might have to give up on the notion of eating inside but the thought of actually eating in one of the stalls of the stable was irresistible. Bob put in our names and the hostess took our phone number and said it would be about a half hour wait. Not too bad even if my tummy did grumble a bit.

The wait was worth it. We actually sat in one of the horse stalls and split a chicken salad sandwich with fries and onion rings. Pictures on the wall showed Edith and her daughter, Cornelia, in riding gear and various other pictures related to the horses. Edith was quite an equestrian and could often be seen racing across the fields of the estate.

Next on our agenda was to explore the Antler Hill Village that is a collection of shops, cafes, and restaurants. The winery is also there and that is where we started. I expected to see a bit more but the "tour" was a walk through a stone walled corridor that was full of sparkling little white lights and a few exhibits of wine barrels and pictures and some explanation of the wine making process. 

Our ticket included a wine tasting but the line for the tasting was wound all around the store. Coffee was more to our liking at that moment so we headed off to find some. All of the little cafes were crowded and waits for just a cup of coffee seemed a bit much especially since there was no place warm to wait and little tiny specks of snow were swirling a bit in the breeze. 

Back in the car with the seat warmers on (gotta love that extra) we started around the parking lot and up the hill. As we were passing the hotel and approaching the inn, Bob said he thought we'd stop at the inn. "Must be a coffee shop in there, right?"

After passing up the valet parking, we found the self park lot and hustled into the lobby of the inn. It was lovely but not nearly as impressive when compared to the Grand Hotel at Mackinac in Michigan. We found a lounge at one end of the main foyer which was the only offering besides the main dining room and asked if we could get a cup of coffee. We were directed to the bar which only had four seats and two small tables. All but two seats at the bar were full unless you wanted to sit outside on the porch. Ah, nope.

The poor bartender had her hands full filling orders that were going out into the lounge area as well as the dining room, I think. She was so busy that she was running out of glasses and had no one there to help her clean up. I felt bad when I realized she had to run to the dining room to get our coffee. It was good though even without the little pastries we'd also ordered and never received. As we sipped, we realized that it was busy because those arriving were waiting there for their rooms to be ready.

Coffee urge satisfied, we decided it was too cold to be walking around and we had not prepared for it so we started out to finish the loop and exit the estate. Our tickets were for two day entry to the estate grounds and we had planned to visit the conservatory and gardens on the next day since our next stretch of driving was not too long to reach Dobson, NC.

After some time to rest, we found our way to the place where the Ohio State Alumni watched the football games. It was another bar night and this time there was not a good alternative to bar food so we were in for some nice fried food. The group was friendly and ready to cheer on the Buckeyes. The Buckeyes were obviously not ready to play. At halftime, between the score and the median age of the group, everyone got up and said goodbye. Okay with us. We were tired and watching the rest of the game in bed was just fine, well except for the score. As the Cleveland sports fans say, "There's always next year."

Sunday, January 07, 2024

Exploring Biltmore--Part Four

 Our tour of Biltmore took us up to the second floor and down to the "basement" or the area that had a hallway in it that showed how the foundation of the house looked. Up and down involved the Grand Staircase as well. As we were coming down at one point in our tour, a private tour was headed up to the third floor which was not open to us. At least I'm pretty sure we were never on the third floor. We wandered up and down for two hours. Definitely a place you could get lost in.

In the lower level, we passed through the corridor of layered stone that made up the foundation of the mansion. Even here, there was a bit of Christmas with a wreath that hung at the end of the corridor.

The hallway led us to the bowling alley. Yes, bowling. There were no automated pin setters back then so one of the servants had to manually reset the pins and return the ball. I was surprised that there wasn't a rack of sorts to rack up the pins but with further research, I learned that mechanical pinsetters like the ones I remembered at the old Colonial at Put In Bay, Ohio weren't invented until the 1940s. We kids used to love coaxing the older kids who were hired to set pins to let us do it. You put pins in the rack and pushed a large horizontal lever that put the pins on the alley where they belonged.

Next we walked around the indoor pool. It was really deep and had a diving platform at one end. There were ropes that hung along the side to hold onto if you got tired trying to swim from one end to the other. Just before entering the pool area, there was a row of dressing rooms, some for ladies, others for gentlemen. The ladies had no mirror in the room due to the fact that their lady's maid would dress her and fix her hair.

Next up was the gym or did they call it the fitness center? Whatever, there was a lot of recognizable equipment and some, not to much. The rowing machine was obvious.

Several rooms we passed were for servants and certainly not as lavish as the guest rooms or main bedrooms for the family. The rooms we passed were probably for the kitchen staff since the kitchen was just around the corner. They could just roll out of bed quickly and get breakfast started.

There was a rotisserie kitchen that had a large spit that could hold a lot of chickens or a huge chunk of meat. It actually had a bit of a roasted meat smell in the room. Or maybe I was just getting hungry.

Through the door, we entered the large kitchen with the working stove, large warming cupboards and a huge working station that displayed a perfect replica of the Biltmore mansion in gingerbread. Bob was quite envious. That's his thing each Christmas. 

Just off the kitchen was a small dining room for the serving staff. Obviously they did not all eat at the same time as I'm sure the table wasn't large enough. According to the voice on our audio guide, they also sat around the table according to rank. 

Besides the pantries and a walk in cooling room (refrigerator), the other important rooms here made up the laundry area. A huge tub was used for the larger items like linens. Several sinks lined one wall and that was for hand laundry, those items that were of fine fabric that needed delicate attention. 

In one room, there were drying racks for the bed sheets. They were large drying racks that you would hang the wet sheet on and then push them back into the drying cabinet. There was also a large mangle for the tablecloths, one of which was 35 feet long. Of course there was also an ironing board and what was said to be a very heavy iron.

Toward the end of our tour as we explored the smoking room and as we were about to exit, we found an open door to the banquet hall that offered one more stunning look at the elegant room. 

Yup, I was ready for lunch.

Saturday, January 06, 2024

Exploring Biltmore--Part Three

 Take a look at the view! Is it any wonder that George Vanderbilt chose this spot for his beautiful mansion.

As we continued through the halls, we stopped and listened at each spot that contained a number for us to listen to commentary on our audio guides.

Probably our favorite room was the library. It was featured prominently in A Biltmore Christmas Hallmark movie. As a matter of fact, there was a small sign that said the library was arranged just as it was in the movie. Sure enough, on the large reading table sat the hourglass that was the catalyst for the story. 

The Vanderbilts not only were conservationists of the land and collectors of art treasures, they also collected volumes of books. The shelves are ceiling to floor and hold about 10,000 of the over 24,000 that they owned. 

The ceiling painting is actually 13 different canvases that make up a painting called "The Chariot of Aurora" by Giovanni Pelligrini and dates back to the 1720s. It originally graced a ceiling in the Pisani Palace in Venice.

George Vanderbilt's room was done in reds and dark woods. A hat sat on a holder on the dark wood vanity that was his. Mrs. Vanderbilt's room was rich in golden colors that filled the room with a warm glow. Heavy brocade furniture, bedspread and drapery added to the richness of the surroundings that included chairs and a lounger as well as a gilded mirrored vanity. This was not the room where she gave birth to their only child, Cornelia.

Cornelia was born in 1900 and in those days, a woman was usually confined for a long time before and after delivery. Edith chose a room with a large window that had a nice view. The room, even though quite large, had a cozy feel to it and the cradle was a sweet reminder of the child born in the room. 

Each room was decorated for Christmas and every one we saw had a Christmas tree in it. There were 67 Christmas trees in all with the largest being the one in the banquet hall that was 35 feet tall and sported 500 lights, 500 ornaments and 500 individually wrapped presents under it. Glad I don't have to put all those decorations away.

Friday, January 05, 2024

Exploring Biltmore--Part Two

 At ten in the morning, we joined the line of those whose tickets were timed at 10:15. It was a cold wait to get past the next ticket taker who directed us to the front steps. where we waited another minute or two to be waved ahead to the door, stopped and then waved again into the foyer where a lady was set up with audio guide phones. Each of us got one and we were directed to proceed. 

The center area of the entry was a domed atrium filled with all sorts of plants and Christmas decorations. Already I was in awe. We listened to the short commentary that welcomed us and invited us to move on through the mansion at our leisure. Each room or hallway had a sign that indicated what number to press on your audio guide to listen. 

The house spans 175,000 square feet (four acres of floor space) and was designed by Richard Morris Hunt. It has 250 rooms which includes 35 bedrooms, 45 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. The fireplaces are now gas fed but there used to be a young man whose only job was to keep them stoked and replenished with wood. I don't think the count of bedrooms includes all the servant quarters. We were shown several examples of women servants' rooms in the house. The guys had rooms in the stable.

To build the mansion at its elevation, a railroad track had to be laid to accommodate the delivery of building materials. Thank goodness, I guess, for the family's background in railroads.

Our first glimpse into a room was of the billiards room. Of course it was the male domain. Somewhere to the right of the fireplace was a secret door that led to a smoking room. We saw it from the smoking room but to see it from the billiard room was almost impossible.

Next on my camera roll is the banquet hall. There was so much to see, that I couldn't take pictures of it all so bear with me. A triple fireplace graced one end and a huge tree was on the opposite end. It was the place where the Vanderbilts entertained their guests with dinner and of course it was always a formal occasion. 

A little further along, we came upon the breakfast room which was a bit smaller, less formal, and used for breakfast and lunch. The table settings were beautiful though.

George Vanderbilt was not only a conservationist when it came to the land but he was also a lover of the arts and there are many original paintings hung around the mansion, many from the Impressionist era, Renoir, Monet. I was beginning to like this guy. Impressionism is my favorite too.

The music room held comfortable seating around a fireplace with a spinet piano or harpsicord visible. In the center, it looked like a music stand where violinists might sit to play. 

At one point, we could look out a window at a long balcony that had a view of the mountains. It wasn't hard to see why the Vanderbilts fell in love with this area even on a cloudy cold day, the beauty was undeniable.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Exploring Biltmore--Part One

 Imagine buying 125,000 acres in the Blue Ridge mountains. Imagine having that much money back in the late 1800s for the purchase. Today the estate is just over 8,000 acres as some of the acreage was sold to the federal government to establish the Pisgah National Forest. George Vanderbilt, the purchaser of the acreage and the builder of the Biltmore mansion was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt who earned the family's wealth through railroads and shipping.

The story of Biltmore starts in 1888 with George's visit to the Asheville area and his purchase of the property. He began the building of his mansion in 1889 and eventually was able to move into the quarters with his new bride, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, on Christmas Eve of 1895.

Is it any wonder that Christmas is a special time at the Biltmore.

We arrived at the first gate around nine o'clock the morning of our visit. The tickets for the mansion are timed so that it is not overcrowded with visitors at any one time. Our time was set for 10:15. They ask you to enter the gate at least 45 minutes before your timed ticket. It takes almost that long to drive from the gate to the mansion. 

We passed through the first stone gate and got in the line of cars who were also here early as we had to pass through a second gate where our tickets were scanned for entry into the grounds. It was a rather chilly morning, cold you might say. but the ticket scanner wore a smile on her face and greeted us as she scanned the tickets on Bob's phone. She directed us to the left to begin our drive to the mansion.

The speed limit is 20 mph which was more than enough as the road wound through the acres of trees and fields. While there was still a lot of foliage, I imagine in the spring and summer months it must be truly beautiful. We passed a few ponds and followed a creek until finally we came to a sign that said there were several parking options. Three of them were a distance from the mansion with a shuttle service in a trolley car. Two of them were within walking distance of the mansion (an estimated 8 minute walk).

Hotel in foreground. Inn on hill.

Somehow Bob managed to pass them all up. We won't discuss how. We ended up by the conservatory and stopped next to a truck with an employee in it. He told us we would have to follow the road all the way around to the beginning again. The road is a five mile loop which is mostly one way. There was no way to backtrack,

Knowing our ticket time wasn't for another hour yet, we took a relaxing drive through the grounds, past the mansion, past the conservatory, past the Antler Hill Village where the Biltmore Inn and Hotel are, past several private homes which I believe can be rented for a stay and finally arrived back where we had entered and had our tickets scanned. We continued on again and this time managed to find Parking Lot B where we could park and walk to the mansion. 

It may have been a short 8 minute walk but it was a cold one. Lo and behold there were a few white flakes speckling the air. We arrived with plenty of time left before our ticket time and were directed to a covered area that was an outdoor cafe, not quite ready for business that early. We passed through the tented area and into what we realized was the stables. At one end was a restaurant and the other end a gift shop. In between were several other little shoppes with candies, books, toys, etc. And it was warm!

If you ever visit for Christmas, be prepared. While North Carolina can be mild, it can also be cold. We were wishing for scarves and gloves. Thankfully we knew we would be inside for most of this day.

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

The Snowbird Migration

Cottony fog swathed the trees in the early morning as we left Beckley, West Virginia. Beckley was our first overnight stop after leaving home and making a quick call on our kids in Plain City to exchange Christmas gifts. 

Our migration this year would be a little different since we had decided to leave a bit early and make a stop to visit the Biltmore Estate. We'd never been and after doing some research and watching A Biltmore Christmas on Hallmark we were excited about visiting. 

From Beckley we headed to Asheville, North Carolina. The Appalachian Mountain range offers some spectacular views when it's not foggy. Several times we caught a glimpse of valleys but most were filled with clouds that had settled in with the weather.

Thankfully it was not snowing. We've been through that area when it snows and it can be treacherous especially if it's windy as well.

The Appalachians were eventually replaced with the Blue Ridge Mountains as we entered North Carolina and neared Asheville. We found our favorite hotel chain, the Hampton Inn, and checked in for our two night stay. Why not stay at the Biltmore Inn or the Biltmore Hotel? Price. The prices for a room at the Biltmore Inn started at $730/night. It went up to a start of over $1000 if you stayed on that Saturday. It was, after all, the busy Christmas season and the prices reflected that. Decorations would only be up through January 7.

Indeed it was busy, the busiest time of the year according to locals. The traffic was horrendous that afternoon and especially congested where the entrance to the estate was. We were glad our tickets for the next day were in the morning and resolved to leave as early as possible to get into the grounds.

The historic Biltmore Village was not too far of a walk from our hotel and we figured it would be a quicker walk than a drive. The weather was nice and sunny, a little cool but tolerable. The village was several blocks of historic homes that have become little shoppes and after a late lunch, we walked around the area and explored some of them.

Then we decided to walk over to what was listed as the visitor center for Biltmore. After waiting at several long lights in order to cross the streets by the entrance, we finally made it only to find that the visitor center was nothing more than a gift shop for all things Biltmore. Across from it however was another building where you could buy tickets and we thought we might get more information.

We had to walk completely around the building before we found the little office with a friendly lady behind the counter who told us that it indeed was a busy week and everything was sold out. Bob inquired about the Candlelight Christmas Evening and except for a very late time, all of that was sold out as well. Between the extra price (our tickets were already over $100/each) and the late hour, we declined.

After the long walk back, we took some time to rest. It was Thursday, Thursday Night Football! And the Browns were playing. Bob had found a place where Browns Backers met to watch the Browns' games and we headed off for a late dinner and to watch the game. It was a fun time and actually a nice meal. We split what the bar called salad in a jar. You choose your ingredients and it comes packed in a quart sized mason jar. That with some spicy pimento spread which seemed to be quite a thing in that area and a Browns win made the evening perfect.

The next day would be a trip back in time.
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