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|Area:||316 km2 ( 181. )|
|Population:||398,534 ( 163. )|
|People density:||1,261 / km2|
|GDP per capita:||8,950 $ / ( 36. )|
|Official language:||maltese, english|
Mention Malta and the images that spring to mind – the Knights of St John, the Maltese Falcon, the George Cross – evoke dignity and glory, chivalry and endurance. Malta, Gozo and Comino together comprise 316 square kilometres of land, barely half the size of London, and this cluster of tiny islands, strategically located in the central Mediterranean some 96km south of Sicily, 353km north of Libya, and equidistant from Gibraltar and Alexandria, have taken on an importance completely out of proportion to their size. They have stood up to the might of the Ottoman Empire during the Great Siege of 1565, cradled the core of Europe’s aristocracy for 268 years under the Knights of St John, and endured more bombing than any other country during World War II. From the Phoenicians to the British, all the great powers have fought over these dusty, windswept rocks, and courted the proud and defiant citizens, as laid-back and irreverent a people as they are industrious and adaptable.
Since attaining independence from Britain less than forty years ago (the only time the islands have not been ruled by an outside power), Malta has developed into a wealthy, modern democracy with a burgeoning tourism industry, now the mainstay of the economy both in the mainland and on Gozo and Comino. Over one million visitors descend each year, most drawn by the two-week sun-and-sea packages for which the islands have come to be known. The north coasts of Malta and Gozo are peppered with fully fledged resorts, which hold all categories of accommodation as well as a wealth of restaurants and cafés serving up Maltese, Italian and French delicacies, hordes of lively bars and the odd nightclub. In terms of beaches, you can choose between some gorgeous sandy swaths – some with unusual orange sand – or the rocky stretches of coastline, equipped with ladders for easy access to the water, which are equally popular spots from which to dive into the sparkling Med. Most of the popular! beaches hold watersports outlets during the summer, and the calm seas that surround the island are ideal for anything from jet-skis and banana boats to snorkelling and scuba; Maltese waters are said to offer the best diving in the Mediterranean. However, if you’re after some seclusion by the sea, there are dozens of undeveloped, less easily accessible coves and rocky shorelines which you’ll often have all to yourself.
There’s far more to Malta than beachlife, though, and you’d be missing out if you didn’t take time to explore the islands’ extensive historical sights, most of which are located in the fortified capital of Valletta, now designated a World Heritage City. The magnificent Neolithic temples scattered over Malta and Gozo – the oldest human-built structures in the world – are second to none: there are more major complexes here than in the whole of the rest of Europe, and they’re an absolute must-see. The Catholic church remains hugely influential in the Maltese islands: 99 percent of the populace are affiliated to the faith, as attested by the 350-plus churches that pierce the skyline (more than one for every square kilometre). Ranging from tiny rural chapels thronged by pilgrims to grandiose parish churches and ornate cathedrals, these shrines showcase some invaluable works of art as well as superlative Baroque architecture.
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