Malta? Malta… Ah yes, that dingy place where the blue-rinse brigade while away their retirement years perusing the red-tops over bacon butties, right? Wrong. And emphatically so. It took little more than a couple of hours on the island to puncture this first-time visitor’s preconception of a once-favoured, now fading destination – a Blackpool of the Med, if you will. In fact, it took a single bus journey, rattling up from Luqa airport to the fringes of Valletta, and from there north-westward along the coast road through Ta’ Xbiex, Gzira, Sliema, St Julian’s, and Paceville (pronounced ‘PATCH-uh-vill’) – overlapping towns of what essentially comprise one large conurbation – to realize that this was very much a country in step with the future, a place combining metropolitan buzz with the laidback charm of a village…
Lying at the crossroads of the European and Arabic worlds, Malta’s strategic importance has led to it being captured by many different peoples, all of whom have contributed an ingredient to its extraordinarily rich heritage. Indeed, one has the feeling of the whole Mediterranean condensed in a 300 square kilometre nation, a microcosm of this great sea’s diverse cultures. There are Roman mosaics and ruins dotted around the island, while Islamic or Arabic influences can be glimpsed in the bazaar-like clamour of the Bus Terminal and in the old walled capital at Mdina (my visit coincided with the shoot for an episode of Poirot in which Valletta was playing the part of Istanbul). The distinct atmospheres of neighbouring suburbs Paceville, St Julian’s, and Sliema comprise a mini-Riviera (Cannes, St Tropez, and Nice, respectively), while the sister island of Gozo evokes the serenity of the Aegean archipelago.
But the real gem is Valletta, the fortress capital, Europe’s smallest, laid out on a grid on the narrow Xiberras peninsula by the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem once they’d seen off the Ottomans in the Great Siege of Malta (1565). Strolling through the alternating bustle and hush of its streets – past baroque palaces and churches (the magnificent St John’s Cathedral houses a stunning Caravaggio that is a must-see), limestone bastions and museums, through piazzas and gardens, harbours and markets – is an absolute delight, and the citadel is surpassed in Europe perhaps only by Rhodes’ Medieval City (the Knights of St John fled their Rhodes stronghold for Malta in 1522 and were given lease of the island by Charles II of Spain in exchange for an annual payment of one falcon, hence the Dashiell Hammett novel). So beguiled was future British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli upon visiting that he wrote “Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it doesn’t exceed, any capital in Europe”. It’s no surprise that the entire city was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.
Beyond its many architectural splendours (some of which, like the Opera House, were destroyed under Luftwaffe bombardment), Malta’s clement climate – the world’s best according to International Living magazine – makes it an appealing year-long destination (and as such the recipient of frequent flights), yet crucially without the off-season bleakness of some holiday hot spots. This is largely thanks to tourism being scattered across the island and integrated cheek-by-jowl with everyday Maltese life, rather than corralled, almost shamefully, into the sort of plastic, barren resorts considered a necessary evil elsewhere in the Med.
Dripping with charm, then, the island is absolutely worth a visit. But what about the attractions and advantages for making a move to Malta permanent? Firstly, as a former British colony, the transition will be facilitated by driving on the left, 3-pin plugs, such familiar cultural references as the iconic red telephone and post boxes, and the highly Anglophone local population, with English the co-official language along with Maltese. This is just as well, too, since the latter – a Semitic-Arabic language sprinkled with a few English loanwords and many others of Sicilian origin (the island lies just 60 miles to the north) – appears to have been the inspiration for Star Trek’s Klingon tongue. “Jaqbel tajjeb!” “M’hemmx mniex” (“Good comparison!” “You’re welcome”). #
Aside from having this comforting anglophilia to help assuage any potential culture shock, Malta is politically highly stable, boasts the lowest crime-rate in Europe, and has an extremely advanced healthcare service (the fifth best in the world according to the World Health Organization) that is helping to turn it into a new destination for medical tourists. Furthermore, it possesses a highly-regarded (and relatively cheap) private education system that attracts a cosmopolitan mix of students to the island, many to learn English. With all this, it’s little wonder that the 2006 World Database of Happiness had the Maltese as the world’s most contented souls.
On top of that, the country has an extremely advantageous taxation system that makes it not just a retirement destination but a vibrant, cheap place to live for working people of all ages. And with Malta part of the Schengen Agreement on movement of peoples across EU borders, new overseas property buyers neither need to have lived on the island for a minimum period, nor to spend a minimum period of time there each year, in order to become residents. Applicants need only overseas assets of at least €349,000 or an annual income of €23,000 from outside the island. There are no property taxes, either (doubtless part of the lure for David Beckham and Gary Neville, both of whom own homes on the island), and no capital gains tax charged on sales after three years of ownership.
With an economy strong in the offshore finance, tourism, gaming, shipping, and real estate sectors, and with new investment being pumped into the SmartCity development, a state-of-the-art information technology and media park akin to ventures in Dubai that is set to create in the region of 5,000 jobs, there are several high-end employment opportunities to be found on the island. So, what’s to stop you making Malta your permanent home abroad?
A superficial doubt that might dissuade people from choosing Malta is its size (and, by implication, its lack of things to do). True, this is not a destination for Clarksons looking for sweeping drives through forests and vineyards, but how often do the citizens of a big city leave a 300 km² area other than by plane. Anyway, being small hasn’t stopped many of the Balearic or Greek islands from becoming (and remaining) very popular destinations, be they party getaways such as Ibiza and Mykonos, or more tranquil retreats like Menorca and Kos.
And its diminutive size means that, as a place to work, Malta – the world’s third most densely populated sovereign state – enjoys a distinct advantage over the commuter drudgery of the UK: namely, what one local estate agent described to me as “the convenience of proximity”. The micro-metropolis is on your doorstep for work, shopping, and socialising, but so too is a boat ready to sail you off to quieter parts of the island, or indeed to Gozo, where one can find, in a nation relatively short on beaches, one of the world’s best, according to The Sunday Times Travel, at Ramla Bay (pictured). This is a stress-reducing, efficient use of time, switching between work and leisure without the dead travel hours spent in wistful dreams of being Anywhere Else But Here...
Whilst the scarcity of land means that buying plots and building villas on them isn’t an option (new developments are restricted to ‘Greater Valletta’), the flipside to this is that property prices tend to remain high. Even so, there are several traditional homes on the market away from the main urban area, typically built with the ubiquitous Maltese limestone, but the real allure of the island’s property market is in waterfront apartment lifestyle, the pick of which is perhaps to be found at Tigné Point, with to die-for-views of the Manoel Fort and Valletta.
Although work on the 33-storey M-Tower, centrepiece of an attempt to gentrify the suburb of Gzira, is at a temporary standstill, the Portomaso development in St Julian’s – which includes the island’s tallest building (pictured) and, for the jet-set, a 110-berth marina just behind the opulent Hilton – has available units, while Pendergardens in Paceville is due for completion in 2012. This partially ‘enforced’ yet tightly regulated vertical growth only adds to the appeal of the island and the pride and confidence of its people, giving it a sheen of modernity without compromising the extraordinary heritage of which the Maltese are equally proud and protective. Literally and metaphorically, this is a country on the way up.