Megaliths, medieval dungeons and Calypso's cave - Malta isn't just old, it's positively mythic. The narrow cobblestone streets of its towns are crowded with Norman cathedrals and baroque palaces. The countryside is littered with the oldest known human structures in the world. Malta is very good at selling its romantic past of Copper Age temple builders and crusading celibate knights, and it has used this image to crank up a formidable tourism industry. Not that the islands are overrun with highrise resorts - yet. In the face of modernisation, the archipelago's staunchly Roman Catholic culture has helped the Maltese maintain a tight-knit community and keep a lid on runaway development.

The upshot of this is that travellers can enjoy a refreshing balance of convenience and unvarnished local charm, and can get comfort for considerably less than at many comparable Mediterranean destinations. Despite their relaxed disposition, the Maltese spend much of the year throwing confetti while carrying statues of their patron saints through the streets and drinking toasts to the Knights of St John. The religious festival season is six months long - ending just in time for the holidays. If you overdose on nougat and wine, you can slip off to the tiny neighbouring islands of Gozo or Comino for some serious peace and quiet.

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