Walled city of Valletta © Mstyslav Chernov
It has been said that the Maltese islands are the 'open air museum of the Mediterranean', offering 7,000 years or more of history to explore with numerous unique cultural and historical sites. The islands boast prehistoric ruins older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt, and are steeped in the legacy of the medieval order of the Knights of St John, who used the islands as their stronghold for defending Christendom.
Malta lies about 60 miles (97km) south of Sicily and 160 miles (257km) north of Libya, a strategic position in the Mediterranean that has made the islands a crossroads of history. The last occupiers were the British, who granted Malta independence in 1964, but the biggest and most unique influence was left by the Knights of St John, to whom the island was donated in 1530. The Knights reigned supreme over the island for 270 years, building magnificent churches and monuments. Malta has truly ancient mysteries too, primarily in the form of 30 prehistoric sites boasting massive Neolithic temples, considered to be the oldest freestanding stone buildings known to man.
Malta and its little sister island, Gozo, are not stuck in a time warp, however. The islanders enjoy life to the full, and the calendar is liberally sprinkled with summertime festas, with fireworks and revelry in every little parish in honour of the village patron saints, as well as the major carnival in early spring every year. The capital, Valletta, besides offering some awesome Baroque buildings and fortifications as its main sightseeing attractions, is bursting with restaurants and cafes. The island's compact size is also a plus for visitors; it takes no more than an hour to drive between any two points on the main island, and there is very little open space. The dense population means that the island is virtually one large urban area, with buildings occupying every inch. Malta is blessed, however, with a rugged and appealing coastline boasting secluded bays and sandy beaches hidden between rocky outcrops, which attract travellers at least as much as the historical sightseeing.