Ciao, Malta!

So we bid farewell to the island nation of Malta. (The Maltese say “ciao” for goodbye. Their language borrows heavily from Italian as well as Arabic.) Lacking any temporary-residence visas, we can only stay in the Schengen Zone for 90 days. Tomorrow is the 90th day since we boarded a train in London and headed for Spain.

So we’re headed back to the New World to check out more possible retirement homes. First stop, later this week, is San Miguel de Allende in the mountains of Mexico’s Guanajuato province, about a three-hour drive north of Mexico City. It’s over 6,000 feet above sea level. Since we’ve been living for the past month at about six feet above sea level, this will take some getting used to!

We’re excited about being warm again. Malta is in the Mediterranean Sea, just about as far south as you can get and still be in Europe. But this winter has been unusually cold. It’s been that way all over Europe. The mountain air of San Miguel promises to be drier. While at night it’s in the low 40s F. right now, daytime temperatures are in the mid 70s. Can’t wait to have a margarita on the rooftop terrace of our apartment!

Right now, the plan is to be in San Miguel until March 1, then move on to Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast. Both towns have huge expat populations. Puerto Vallarta’s expat community is active and vibrant. We’ve already gotten a ton of emails inviting us to their social events. After about six weeks in PV, we plan to try Mèrida, at the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, then possibly Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancun. We’re back in the Chicago area, probably by mid-July. Hope to see many of you then.

International Living magazine rates Mexico as the Number One retirement destination in the world for 2017. It’s partly the warm climate, partly the warm people. We’re hearing lots of great things about Mexico. Now, I know somebody is saying, “Gee, isn’t Mexico dangerous?” Well, it’s not nearly as dangerous as Chicago!  Seriously, there are places in Mexico you should not go, like the Mexican states along the U.S. border and the state of Sinaloa. The drug cartels aren’t active in the areas we plan to visit. If they were, the tourists and expats would leave, taking their money with them. Then lots of good folks would lose their jobs. Where we’re going, it’s very safe. More on that later.

I leave you with a photo I took in Teatro Manoel in Valletta. It’s the third oldest theater in Europe, and the oldest in the former British Commonwealth. The concert we attended was titled, “Gallic Music for Cello and Piano.” The cellist was a young French artist, Sébastien Hurtaud. He was accompanied by Italian pianist Bruno Canino. We heard works by DeBussy, Fauré and Saint-Saëns. Leslie and I both enjoyed the performance, but spent the whole time thinking of our dear friend and outstanding cellist, Jo-Jo Murphy.

Next post from Mexico!

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Sorry, it’s a little dark at intermission of a concert we attended in the very small Teatro Manoel, built in 1731 by the Portuguese Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena of the Knights of St. John. 

 

 

Malta: Maybe, Maybe Not

We have fewer than 10 days left here on Malta, so it’s time to start evaluating. There are a lot of good things to say about Malta. The biggest plus so far has been the ease of meeting other expats. We’ve enjoyed going to church at St.Andrews

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Here we are with the Rev. Kim Hurst, pastor of St. Andrews and a methodist minister from the U.K.

and have met some lovely people. In fact, Leslie and I had dinner last night at the home of our Canadian friends, Frank and Judy Wilmot.

Another plus is that most Maltese speak English, some better than others. Most signage is in English or a mix of English and Maltese. It’s generally pretty easy to make ourselves understood.

Culture is a big deal here — yet another plus. In fact, Malta will be the European Union Capital of Culture in 2018. They’re already promoting it. Beginning next week is the Valletta International Baroque Festival, a series of 25 classical concerts at various places around the capital city. We may get to see two or three before we leave. Malta also has an annual jazz festival and many opportunities to see theater and dance performances.

Leslie and I attended the President’s New Year Concert by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra on New Year’s Eve at the Mediterranean Conference Center, which was built in the 16th Century by the Knights of St. John as a hospital. The orchestra was pretty good, as was the featured soloist, a young Maltese soprano, Nicola Said; the program mostly light classics and show tunes. And the president was there!

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The blond woman with glasses in the center of the photo is President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca. We were that close to her. Everybody talks about her with genuine affection and respect. What a concept!

We were in the same room with the president of Malta, and we never saw any security. No metal detectors, no cops or soldiers with guns. Granted, the real political power here rests in the prime minister rather than the president. But she is far from a figurehead, being heavily involved in social issues of all kinds. I think it speaks well for this island nation that the president can mingle easily with the people.

There are also some things that aren’t that great. We noticed pretty quickly that it gets quite chilly here in December and January — and many Maltese don’t have heating or air conditioning in their homes. We have a dehumidifier in this 400-year-old house, which makes it feel more comfortable. Today’s high was only 50º F. with light rain and even some sleet, and tonight’s forecast low is 41º F. Up until today, it’s been more like 60º to 65º F. most days. Our neighbor came by this morning and said this is the coldest winter she can remember. Newer construction and renovated spaces often include heat and air conditioning, but running them costs quite a bit — electricity is expensive on Malta.

That’s just one part of what we’ve determined to be a slighter higher cost of living than what we found in Spain. Renting or buying property would be more expensive here. The biggest real estate agency lists apartments in Valletta for upwards of $315,000, and some of the better properties are well over $1 million. Here, on the older more historic side of The Grand Harbour, an area known locally as The Three Cities, some apartments are listed for under $160,000, and about the same in other parts of the island.

Surprisingly, we found some rentals available in St. Angelo Mansions, built recently just outside the walls of Fort St. Angelo — the only Malta fortification that withstood The Great Siege of 1565. We could rent a three-bedroom with water view there for anywhere from $1,100 to $1,600 a month. And in Valletta, we found rental listings for as little as $1350 a month for a two-bedroom. In communities nearer the center of the island, we found monthly rentals as low as $600 a month, also for two bedrooms. So there is some affordable real estate all over Malta.

Then there’s the cost of food. Just a few items from last week’s grocery list, all converted from grams and liters into U.S. measurements, and from euros to dollars at the current exchange rate. Bear in mind that without a car we don’t have easy access to an American-style supermarket. Our neighbor Marthese, who takes care of this house for the owner, took Leslie to the supermarket one day a few weeks ago, but most of our food comes from The Convenience Store (yes, that’s the name — it’s a local chain). With that in mind, here are the costs for you to compare:

  • peanut butter, 12.3 ounces, $2.88.
  • eggs, one dozen, $2.31.
  • orange juice, 67.6 ounces, $3.56.
  • olive oil, 8.4 ounces, $3.35.
  • coffee, 17.6 ounces, $3.03.

Leslie says the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables from the greengrocer on Victory Street is slightly more than we paid at Central Mercado in Alicante. Same with meat and poultry. So in general, food costs are slightly higher here. Eating out in a restaurant is also a bit more expensive than in Alicante, with dinner menu prices rivaling what we paid at our favorite restaurants in DuPage County.

In general, we both believe Malta deserves continued consideration as a retirement home. We may come back to see how it is in a warmer season.

Our time in Europe is over for now. Next stop, Mexico. More on that next post.

I leave you with a photo of the nave and elaborately painted barrel vault of St. John’s Co-Cathderal, the number one tourist attraction in Valletta, built by the Order of St. John between 1572 and 1577, and dedicated to St. John the Baptist. In the 17th Century, the interior was redecorated in the Baroque style by Italian artist Mattia Preti and others. The church is considered one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe and one of the world’s great cathedrals. The artwork alone is awesome.img_1318

Different Parts of Malta, Part Two

In the last post I forgot to say Leslie and I had a great Christmas with our daughter, Stephanie. We enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner in our house and went to church Sunday at St. Andrews, where we sang carols and heard an excellent message from Pastor Kim Hurst.

After the service, we feasted on Christmas dinner with about 40 people from the church and the community. There were people from the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Australia, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria and Malta, of course. Maybe a few others. We didn’t get to talk to everyone.

Our new friends Franklin and Judy cooked turkey and dressing with lots of potatoes and vegetables. Since they are Canadian, Judy called it, “a traditional North American Christmas dinner.” Here we are:img_1297

 

Now, Part Two of our private guided tours of Malta, conducted by Victoria, who did a great job. In the last post I detailed our visits to the Blue Grotto, two of the island’s megalithic temples and Casa Bernard. But there’s more!

We had  a “Taste of Malta” experience that started with some Maltese coffee and traditional pastries. Didn’t like the coffee. It has anise in it, and I don’t like that flavor. Leslie liked it, but not enough to make it at home. The pastries, on the other hand, were very nice. We each had something different, and we also tried traditional nougat treats. For lunch, we dined at Diar Il-Bniet in the town of Dingli, a restaurant featuring food from a nearby farm. We asked Victoria about the menu and she said, “Everything they serve is food that Maltese people prepare at home.” Baked macaroni with minced beef, beef marrows, beef olive with Maltese sausage, and cauliflower lasagne. Probably the best meal we have had in quite some time. Maltese food is very flavorful!

But we did more than eat. We also walked through the walled city of Mdina, founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th Century and Malta’s capital until medieval times. Only a few hundred people live within the walls, mostly members of Malta’s noble class.

The biggest attraction in Mdina is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Originally built in the 12th and 13th Centuries, the cathedral was severely damaged in a rare earthquake in 1693. It was rebuilt in the Baroque style we see today. img_1400

The Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta while being taken to Rome to stand trial before Cesar, his right as a Roman citizen (see Acts 21-26 for the whole story). The cathedral is dedicated to him, and most of the art is about Paul, including a beautiful frescoe above and just behind the altar depicting the shipwreck.

St. Paul’s Cathedral is known for its Christmas “crib,” what we in the U.S. would call a nativity scene. Only this one is massive. There are so many people and animals in this crib that it’s hard to even find Mary and Joseph! It’s probably 12 to 15 feet across. This is a Maltese tradition. Many of the faithful have cribs in their homes, or in a display case right beside their front doors.

Here’s the cathedral’s crib — shepherds on the left, angels descending from Heaven:img_1410

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the close-up (below) you can barely see Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Look near the center, then see the Magi just to the right of the baby:img_1411

We left the cathedral to visit the Mdina Glass factory, which is actually in the village of Ta’ Qali. Each piece the company sells is hand-made. We watched glassmakers working, effortlessly creating items like the ones on display in the shop. Leslie and Stephanie both contributed to the economy of Malta!

If you want to know more about the art they produce, click on the link in the previous paragraph.

Finally we visited Meridiana Wine Estate, also in Ta’ Qali, where we got a tour of the winery and did some tasting. This winery, and its vineyards, are on land that was a British airfield during World War II (see photo, below). Vines were planted and the winery built in the 1980s. Click the link above to learn more.img_1426

Leslie and I had tried some Meridiana wine at a wine shop in Valletta a few weeks earlier. We were surprised at how good Maltese wines are. Meridiana is our favorite, but there are other excellent wines here.

Our good friend Sean Chaudry at Hinsdale Wine Shop really needs to try and score some of their Isis Chardonnay. It’s one of the best chardonnays I have ever tasted, but I doubt it’s available to distributors in the States. Sean, your next trip should be to Malta! You won’t regret it. img_1423

This photo (left) shows Leslie and Stephanie in the barrel room. We descended a tightly wound spiral staircase into the cellar and learned how their wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in French oak barrels, like these.

All their wines are named after Phoenician gods, such as the goddess Isis, previously mentioned. I know what you’re thinking — Isis was an Egyptian goddess! Well, it seems folks here on Malta think she was a Phoencian goddess first, and the Egyptians borrowed her. Either way, the wine named for her is stunning. Crisp and citrusy. Great with Maltese seafood.

Steph bought a few bottles, some red and some white, to ship home to San Diego. Leslie and I got a few bottles for ourselves because the winery price was lower than the Valletta wine shop price.

Since we don’t have a rental car, these tours gave Leslie and me a great chance to see more of Malta. And it was super entertainment for Steph. We all learned a lot.

But then it was time to say goodbye to our beautiful daughter. She took a very early morning flight to  London on Dec. 29, and arrived safely — much to the delight of her two cats, Louis and Piper. Fortunately there was no hijacking this time!

Leslie and I plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve by attending The President’s New Year Concert by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. Then we will watch the fireworks. We haven’t decided where to go yet; there are several possibilities. We may join the crowds in Valletta’s St. George’s Square or watch from Upper Barrakka Gardens, near the underground bunkers where the Allies planned the Mediterranean campaign in World War II. Or, if it’s too cold, we may head back home to watch the fireworks from the Three Cities side of The Grand Harbour. We’ll let you know.

Happy New Year!

Seeing different parts of Malta

img_1323This is a view from above of the famous Blue Grotto on Malta’s southeastern coast, one of the places our daughter Stephanie wanted to see while she was here for Christmas. Leslie found a private tour company to help us all get a better look at parts of the island we haven’t seen.

See that itty-bitty boat down there? We got in one of those little boats (it only holds nine passengers, and you have to wear a life jacket) for a close-up view of an amazing place. Stephanie got a great selfie of the three of us:img_0035There are several caves and limestone structures on the 20-minute tour, but Blue Grotto is the star. Take a look at the incredible color of the water:img_1343

From the Blue Grotto, we drove past a rather large, somewhat isolated home that is often rented to the rich and famous who come to Malta for privacy. Our guide Victoria said the current occupant is Tom Hanks, although she did not know if he’s here to film a movie or just for vacation. Too bad he didn’t come out so we could say Merry Christmas!

Then we moved on to see the Hagar Qim temples, just two of the 23 megalithic temples found on Malta. They are the oldest free-standing structures in the world — 1,000 years older than the pyramids! This (below) is what the temple sites look like, covered by a tent to prevent damage from the elements. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site.img_1378

Unlike at Stonehenge, which is 2,000 years younger, the temple builders here used locally quarried limestone rock. There are two types in the area: a hard limestone and a softer limestone. Builders mainly used the soft variety because it’s easier to decorate. They also used it to draw their plans. Look at the two photos below. In the first, you see what might be considered an architect’s drawing. In the second, what the temple entrance looks like today.
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Maybe my friend and international architect Larry Hartman can weigh in on the “blueprint”!

Just one more site to discuss in this post. We visited Casa Bernard in the village of Rabat. Built in the 16th Century, this was the home of a Maltese noble family of French origin. The current owners, Georges and Josette Magri, are not nobility but they have owned the house for many years and they still live in it. They open a portion to the public on a limited basis, but this is their home. They had a family Christmas dinner in the formal dining room. I think Josette said they had 40 for dinner, and yes, she had it catered!img_1391

She and Georges are collectors, as were both sets of parents. The place is like an antique shop. A very high-class antique shop! They have lots of small items to show off — pill boxes, match boxes, jewelry, china, silver services and other items. But there are also paintings on the walls that date to the 17th and 18th Centuries. A few are portraits of some of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St. John.

Our tour with Victoria continued to the walled city of Mdina with its glorious cathedral, to the famous glass factory outside of Mdina, and to the Meridiana Wine Estate. Malta has some outstanding wines. We tasted some at Meridiana. Stephanie bought half a case to be shipped to her home in San Diego. She will have the only Maltese wine in San Diego — maybe in all of California!

More on that next time! Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas from Malta!

We had a little excitement today. As Leslie and I prepared for our daughter Stephanie’s arrival for Christmas, we heard about a hijacked airplane that had landed at the Malta International Airport. There was a possible hostage situation and the airport was closed. It turned out to be a Libyan airliner, hijacked while on a domestic route. Apparently this was a political act by supporters of the former dictator. It was not terrorism, and no one was killed or injured. The good news is, Stephanie’s flight from London Heathrow was only about 15 minutes late.

So she arrived safely and will be with us for a few days to celebrate Christmas. Leslie has a lot planned — we’re doing a walking tour of Valletta, the capital city, and a wine tasting, among other things. Maltese wines are very good — we’re trying to sample as many as we can!

Christmas Day we plan to worship at St.Andrew’s Church in Valletta, then join our new friends in the congregation for Christmas dinner. img_1273Our Canadian friends Franklin and Judy are preparing traditional turkey and dressing with all the trimmings. This is a fun group, so it should be a great Christmas. So far we’ve met people from Canada, Egypt, Nigeria, the U.K. and the U.S. Quite an international group.

Here’s a look at the sanctuary (right). I think the building dates to the early 1800s.

There are Christmas decorations all over this island. The city of Mdina is known for works of art in blown glass. Just inside the city gates of Valletta, in front of the Parliament building, stands a Christmas tree made of Mdina glass balls — big ones, little ones, all kinds of sizes. It’s quite festive, and about 30 feet tall. Timg_1288here are also lots of nativity scenes around Malta, some done by churches, some by businesses, some in front of private homes.

I saw an article — can’t remember where — in which Malta was touted as one of the best places in the world to spend Christmas. Makes sense, since better than 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Nobody here says “Happy Holidays”!

Stephanie heads back home to San Diego after Christmas, but Leslie and I plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve here. Instead of joining the crowd in the square on Republic Street at midnight, though, we will be at the Mediterranean Conference Center for the President’s New Year Concert, featuring the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. There are a couple of other concerts in the first two weeks of the new year that we hope to attend.

We’re here until Jan. 16, then we have to leave Europe because we don’t have the visa necessary to stay longer than 90 days. I explained the Schengen Agreement in an earlier post. It just means we will be heading to Mexico next, to the mountain town of San Miguel de Allende. More on that later, too.

It will be sad to leave our new neighbors here in Malta, though, especially our new best friends who live here, on these tiny boats, just across the harbor from us:img_1279

The one on the left is bigger than our house in Westmont was!

The boats on our side of the harbor are a lot smaller. We were chagrined, however, to learn that the American Dream is not dead, it’s for sale:img_1275

Merry Christmas!

Malta is cool

Actually, a little cooler than we expected — and not in a good way. Leslie and I thought we would enjoy highs near 70 degrees F. on this island, but it’s about 10 degrees short of that mark — about the same temperature as Alicante. We can’t put our sweaters away just yet.

We’re dealing with a few other challenges in the 400-year-old house in which we’re living until the middle of next month. It’s in a town called Senglea, or L-Isla in Maltese. Here’s what the house looks like:img_1265

That’s the front door — the one on the left. It’s called Ave Maria and the address is 7 Triq-Is-Sirena. All the houses have names, most of them church-related in some way, as well as addresses.

We’ve been told the house was built by the Grand Masters. The full title of this ruling class is The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, also known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or Order of Malta. It is a Roman Catholic lay religious order traditionally of military, chivalrous and noble nature, founded as the Knights Hospitaller in 1099, around the time of the First Crusade. Its claim to fame is that it is the world’s oldest surviving chivalric order.  And that they developed the Maltese Cross. Yes, it’s still around. But Malta is an independent nation now, part of the European Union.

I’ve provided a few links here for you to find out more about Malta, if you like. It’s not on the vacation radar for very many Americans, but a lot of British tourists come here in the summer. This is the Wikipedia page.  And here is the official tourism site.

But back to the house we’re in. The building was apparently once part of the city walls, and at one time it housed a convent. Now it’s been refurbished with all the modern conveniences. Except one. There’s no heat.

Most homes of this age on Malta don’t have central heat or air. So in the very short winter (I guess it’s just while we’re here) people run dehumidifiers to make the indoor air feel warmer. And it seems to work, too.

One upside to this house is the view. Walk out the front door and look to the right, and you can see part of the bay, with lots of boats moored. There are simple rowboats and water taxis — traditional Maltese design — and larger sailboats with 20- to 30-foot masts. Sleek, nice boats. img_1268Then there are the super-yachts, moored on the other side of the bay. Several of these yachts are bigger than our house in Westmont was! Probably bigger than your house, no matter who you are!

If you walk along the waterfront (on the right in the photo), there are a number of small restaurants. All have outdoor seating so you can see the water and the boats, and watch the ferry head over to the capital, Valletta, every half hour. The trip over takes about 15 minutes by ferry, 20 or 30 by bus.

Walk down to where you see the white van parked, turn left and you can walk along the waterfront and see Valletta.

One downside to Senglea is that it’s built into the side of a hill. And since the house is pretty close to water level, we have to climb stairs to get to shops, the bus stop or the local ATM.img_1270 It’s also very quiet. There are no other tourists here. Most visitors to Malta stay in Valletta, or in the town just north of Valletta, called Sliema. We plan to visit those places in the days to come.

Finally, this country has two official languages: Maltese and English, because the Brits owned this island for a very long time. Everybody speaks English, at least some English, but with a heavy accent in most cases, and not a British accent, either. Sometimes it’s hard to understand. Maltese is kind of a blend of Arabic, Italian, Spanish and English. It actually sounds Arabic, and a neighbor told me last night that Arabic-speakers can understand Maltese pretty easily. At least most of the signage is in both languages.

Now we get to explore this place and determine if it’s a possible retirement home. More to come…