Review: A High Tatra's guidebook suitable for Cliff Claven

Title: Tatras
Author: Ján Lacika
Price: 199 Slovak crowns
Available at: the Štrbské Pleso tourist information centre, as well as other Tatra information centres
Rating: 9 out of 10

All visitors to the Vysoké Tatry (High Tatras) on the Slovak-Polish border come to realise that the mountain range is one of the most beautiful in the world.

But unless those visitors read Ján Lacika's tour-guide book entitled Tatras, they likely won't learn of its more fascinating and uncelebrated history.

The casual visitor probably knows that the Tatras are a granite mountain range, but does that same visitor realise that the "Tatra granite is different to the compact Czech or Scandinavian granites"? According to Lacika, the difference is significant. "The dominating rock of the Tatras is heavily cracked as a result of alpine orogenic forces. If we climb to any of the Tatra peaks we shall not find a single granite block suitable for sculpture."

But, Lacika is quick to point out, while the granite of the Tatras may be useless to rock sculptors, it is still of great interest and use to geologists.

Indeed, in 1995 "fortune smiled on a pair of Slovak geologists" when they discovered odd markings on some rocks in Tichá dolina (Quiet Valley).

"The experts tried to decipher the mystery, in a manner not unlike a detective investigation." Their efforts were rewarded with the discovery that the marks were those of the Coelurosaurichus tatricus, a dinosaur which left its footprints in a muddy meadow some 195 million years ago, footprints preserved for the Slovak geologists to discover.

Lacika's book is dotted with myriad other interesting anecdotes. It offers guides and historical observations of all the Tatra villages, mountain peaks and lakes, complete with obscure but intriguing facts. For example, did you know that Kriváň mountain was never successfully mined because "a thundering voice coming out of the bowels of the mountain... threatened to flood the whole region if [miners] did not stop disturbing his sleep with their hatchets"?

Then there's Skok waterfall in Mlynická dolina. Legend has it that a young woman searching for her dead lover haunts the valley above, spilling endless tears which feed the 25 metre high falls year round. "The waterfall certainly resembles a veil, the symbol of mourning for a woman," Lacika enthuses.

Lacika's book not only offers cryptic facts of legend and ghosts, it also provides readers with practical information. On page 8 is a chart listing the 25 tallest peaks in the range (Gerlachovský štít is the tallest at 2,654 metres). Page 12 lists the five tallest waterfalls, while on page 13 readers can find the ten largest lakes in the Tatras.

On page 99 a 20-page guide to some of the most popular hikes in the mountains begins, complete with maps, descriptions, elevations and estimated time for hiking each trek. Want information on riding bikes within the park's borders? Check page 120. Skiing? Try page 125.

Lacika seems to have thought of everything, and his story telling is written evidence that he knows and loves the mountains he writes so engagingly of. A nitpicker may complain that he tends to fall into melodramatic prose while limping along in his descriptions with crutch words like "majestic", "marvellous", and "wonderful".

But in the end, this dramatic style makes the book all the more endearing in that it shows the passion the author has for his subject. The result is "Tatras", hands down the most informative, fun, engrossing and enticing book on the market on Slovakia's grandest mountain range.

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