On a trip to Poland in the fall of 1998, my first stop was Warszawa, the Polish name for the city that Americans called Warsaw. Warsaw is, by far, the largest city in Poland with a population of 1.5 million. It was not, however, the city with the largest population of Polish people in 1998, since Chicago had 1.8 million Polish-Americans at that time.

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, Warsaw has become so Westernized that you would think that you were in a city in America. The names at the top of the skyscrapers are IBM, Firestone, Goodyear, Marriott, Coca Cola, and other American brand names. On every corner, it seems, there is either a Pizza Hut or a McDonald's. In all the restaurants where I ate, the menus were in both Polish and English. Everyone that a tourist is likely to communicate with in Warsaw speaks fluent English. A tourist is likely to have more trouble communicating with the people in Scotland than in Poland, since the Poles speak English without an accent. The people of Poland are extremely friendly and respectful with Old World manners. Having heard that Poland is a backward country, I was amazed to see so many people conducting business on cellular phones.

For most travelers, their first view of Poland is the airport on the outskirts of Warsaw. I traveled on Lott, the Polish airline and almost all of the passengers were Polish. When the plane landed, everyone applauded. The airport is quite small, more like the Shannon airport in Ireland than like some of the other international airports in Europe. All airport signs are in both English and Polish, so one needn't worry about getting lost or confused here.

The route from the airport to the city of Warsaw has a two-mile stretch of road lined with beautiful linden trees which is quite an impressive sight, especially in the Fall when the leaves have changed color. Along this road is a very formal entrance to a graveyard where Russian soldiers, who died on the battlefields to liberate Poland from the Nazis, are buried. Immediately, you are aware of history the minute you enter Poland.

I stayed at the Hotel Europejski, which is the oldest hotel in Warsaw, opened on Jan. 1, 1857, and is exactly what you would expect for a hotel built in 1857. There is a Polish military building across from the front entrance and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, behind a very large plaza called the plac Pilsudskiego, is on one side of the hotel. Soldiers guard the tomb around the clock and every hour there is a changing of the guard with a special ceremony at 12 noon every Sunday. I got there just in time for the noon ceremony and saw Polish veterans from World War II dressed in their uniforms.

Tomb of Unknown Soldier after it was restored

Inside the building where the tomb of the unknown soldier rests, there are inscriptions on the walls commemorating battles fought by the Poles from 972 to 1945. A couple of German tourists standing next to me pointed out the inscription for the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. This was the decisive battle in which the Poles and the Lithuanians teamed up to defeat the German Teutonic Knights, a religious military order. The Christian Poles needed the protection of the Teutonic Knights in their fight against the pagan Prussians, who were then Slavic people, and the Lithuanians, who were also pagans.

The old photograph below shows the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, erected in 1925, as it looked in 1945 after it was damaged during World War II. The photo above is a postcard which shows it as it looks today, after being rebuilt.

Tomb of Unknown Soldier in Warsaw during World War II

Behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is Warsaw's first park which was designed by English gardener James Savage in 1727 with formal landscaping. The park is quite extensive, being almost as large as Old Town. Called Saxon Park, it was originally the grounds of the palace for King Augustus II, who was German and was also the Elector of Saxony, a province in Germany. He was nicknamed Augustus the Strong because of his physical strength and his legendary sexual prowess. There were actually two Saxon kings, as his son Augustus III succeeded him. Right away, you begin to understand why the Nazis thought of Poland as the "German East".