Taking up just 122 square miles of southern Mediterranean and with a population of just over 400,000, the Maltese archipelago (which includes three main islands) is one of Europe's smallest countries. The island nation's rugged coastline boasts dramatic cliffs and tiny coves dotted with ancient forts and quaint fishing harbors. Inland, stone walls separate fields planted with olives, wheat and potatoes. Wine production is also popular, and vines hang heavy with grapes all over the islands. The labyrinthine streets of 16 th century Valletta empty into cobblestoned plazas where elderly gents sip Italian-style cappuccinos outside centuries-old cafes while super-yachts drift in and out of the nearby harbor. Malta, from its weather and food to its history and culture, is quintessential Mediterranean.
Malta is also one of the most affordable lifestyle options in Western Europe. A retired couple could live well here on as little as 1,300 euro per month, including 500 euro per month for rent. Thanks to the euro's downtrodden position versus the U.S. dollar, 1,300 euro is very nearly $1,300, a truly bargain budget for a Continental lifestyle.
Malta is historic, charming, cultured and affordable, but it is also modern and developed. The World Health Organization ranks its standard of medical care as the fifth best in the world. Health care has long been a source of pride here. The knights who ruled the country for 300 years were originally established to provide care for the often ragged pilgrims turning up in Jerusalem. During World War I the island acted as a hospital, providing high level care to injured soldiers. Today, the island nation enjoys a growing reputation as a medical tourism destination.
Thanks to their situation on the Mediterranean coast, these islands are transformed each season. Malta enjoys an average of 12 hours of sunshine daily in the summer, but that drops to five to six hours by midwinter. The climate is like that in southern Italy and Spain and is ideal for anyone who likes sunshine but also enjoys a change of seasons.
The Maltese language is believed to derive from the language of the ancient Phoenicians, who arrived on the islands in 750 B.C. Peppered with many foreign words, particularly English, Italian and Arabic, it is the only Semitic language written in Latin characters. Don't worry, though. Living here, you wouldn't have to try to learn it. English is also an official language and is widely and fluently spoken, making Malta a place where you could retire in Europe without having to speak a new language.
The Maltese Islands enjoyed a golden era during the Neolithic period, some 7,000 years ago. The remains of that civilization, which predates the Egyptians and the folks who built Stonehenge by several thousand years, include a number of mysterious temples dedicated to the goddess of fertility. Later, the islands were controlled by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and the Byzantines, all of whom also left their marks.
The Maltese people are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and the religion's presence on the islands dates to A.D. 60, when St. Paul is said to have been shipwrecked here while on his way to Rome. The Maltese Islands found themselves marooned in the middle of the empire carved out by the Arabs in the ninth century, and came under Muslim control in 870. After subsequent periods under the Normans and the Aragonese, the islands were gifted to a band of knights called the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem by Charles V in 1530. This was the group established to provide protection and medical care to religious pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem from the Christian regions of Europe. This period marked a new golden age, during which Malta took its place as a hub of Mediterranean artistic and architectural excellence. Artists including Caravaggio, Mattia Preti and Favray were commissioned by the knights to embellish churches, palaces and auberges.
The era of the knights came to an end in 1798 when Napoleon Bonaparte swept into Malta en route to Egypt. The French didn't stay long and were ousted by the English after the Maltese requested their help. The English remained in control of the islands until 1964, when Malta secured its independence.
Today the country is making a big push to develop its super-yacht servicing facilities in a bid to draw more millionaire-grade vessels. These islands are fringed by massive luxury pleasure crafts and more ordinary floating vessels, making it a boater's haven.
Thanks to the country's position as a key trading and transport hub in the Mediterranean and military and colonial history, the Maltese are accustomed to foreigners among them. They are a welcoming people, and, with no language barrier, it's easy to slip into life here. The website MeetUp Malta is designed to help expats and foreign retirees of all nationalities make friends and business connections on the island. The group sponsors Friday night drinks, comedy nights, book clubs and sporting activities such as cycling and rock climbing. Other welcoming multinational groups include 246 Expats, the Association of International Women in Malta and the Lions Club, based in Sliema.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group .
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