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There are very few countries in the world that have had the rich history that this tiny nation of 122,316 square kilometres can boast. Comprising the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino, this pint-sized country has had strategic value since the time man learned to sail the seas. The result is that Malta today wears its influences through an impressive architectural heritage, archaeological highlights, and a unique language and culture, with three UNESCO World Heritage listings on its soil and another seven being considered.
One of the reasons for the long history is that the first inhabitants – Stone Age farmers – arrived as far back as 5200 BC. Since then, the island was invaded during the Bronze Age, saw the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians arrive, followed by the Romans and the apostle Saint Paul, who was shipwrecked here. Quiet during the Byzantine era, Islamic North African Berbers took control of the islands in 870 AD.
After a further series of occupations, the Order of the Knights of St John arrived in 1530, handed the islands by the Spanish. The Turks made their presence felt in 1565 with the very gory ‘Great Siege’ and then the capital of Valetta was born. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte took Malta from the Knights and then the British took it from the French the next year, and Malta became a colony. The country only gained independence in 1964, becoming a republic in 1974.
Malta Island is by far the largest of the three islands and the one that most visitors head to, while the smaller Gozo has remarkable scenery and a rich history, and the tiny Comino at 3.5 square kilometres is mostly a reserve with no cars and one resort.
The capital, Valetta, was designed as a fortress city, and built in only 15 years, producing a late Renaissance and Baroque beauty that resulted from some marvellous town planning. Even additions up to the 19th century harmonize well with the existing structures. Just walking around Valetta without a guidebook and you’ll find little historical details to appreciate such as niches and fountains, along with petite streets with charming cafés and shops.
Malta is a favourite summer destination and it can get crowded and very hot, but the beaches, both rocky and sandy, are plentiful enough that you can get away and get back to nature. Travelling in autumn and spring will allow visitors to see the islands more comfortably. Just as the Maltese language will feel both familiar and foreign, so will the cuisine – Mediterranean at its core but with strong influences from nearby Sicily and North Africa.
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