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Malta is a nation comprising three small islands in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean between Sicily and Libya. This strategic location has provided trade and invited conquest since time before history. Today, Europe still comes to Malta, but this time it's for sun, fun, and relaxation rather than conquest.

The first lure of the islands of Malta is the sea - clear, warm summer seas attract swimmers, snorkelers, sailors, boaters, windsurfers, and divers from all over Europe. The limestone shores of Malta, Comino, and Gozo provide the most interesting scuba diving in the Mediterranean. Wonderful old farm roads lined by fieldstone walls make wandering the island by mountain bike a great alternative to water sports.

The architecture of Malta, ranging over thousands of years, is reason enough for a visit. Pre-historical sites abound on Malta and Gozo. The temples of Ggantija and Hagar Qim, that antedate the pyramids by 1,000 years, are the oldest man-made structures in the world. A day's foray into these ruins will leave your mind stunned and your legs a bit wobbly.

Many visitors are here for less strenuous activity, though, and among the rocks and cliffs and caves that once sheltered Odysseus, they find their way to golden sand beaches to soak up the sun. After a day on the beach or in the water, they discover that Malta offers plenty of great bars, restaurants, and nightspots, many of which are renovations of buildings that have been there for centuries. History is never far away in Malta.

Gozo, only 20 minutes away by car ferry, is smaller than Malta and has a more rural feel. Strolling the markets in Victoria and gazing across the island from the Citadel are the most popular visitor tasks. This is the island of Calypso, who incarcerated Odysseus, and of ruins of Ggantija, which were already 1,000 years old when Homer's hero was kept here.

The list of those who have controlled Malta forms the early chapters of any book on western history. Pre-historical tribes, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Knights, the French, and the English have taken turns managing these islands and together have contributed to one of the greatest cultural amalgams in the world.

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The magnificent medieval battlements and walled cities of Malta rise in stone almost as part of the land. The ancient capital of Mdina, still occupied by many aristocratic Maltese families, is 3,000 years old. Its medieval square hosts historical pageants and religious festivals throughout the year.

Valletta, the national capital, is a relative newcomer. The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, who were given the islands by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in exchange for two falcons a year, fortified Valletta starting in 1530 to defend against the invading Ottoman Turks, who attacked and were repelled in 1565. Now, a variety of merchant shops, stores, offices, restaurants, and accommodations fill the same narrow streets that were protected by the Knights.

The incomparable views of the Grand Harbour from the ramparts of Valletta today are the same that Napoleon saw when he swept through on his way to Egypt in 1798 and the same that Nelson saw when he evicted the French two years later.

After the defeat of the French, the British stayed for over 150 years, and Malta became a primary refueling stop for steamships traversing the Suez Canal and a major military base for the British.

Heavy bombing by the Axis powers in WWII threatened the very life of the island, but the character of the people prevailed, and England's George VI awarded the George Cross for bravery to the entire population.

Malta should be high on your list of places to vacation: nice people, great climate, deep sense of history, extraordinary activities, excellent dining - all the ingredients to make your visit to Malta unforgettable.

For Malta travel highlights, see our Vacation and Destination Guides.

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