Over the years many people have sought refuge in Malta. Cynthia Busuttil finds that today the island still provides a safe haven for many. For some it serves as a holiday escape; others come to stay.
Ray Woods loves the warm welcome he receives from neighbours, friends and even shopkeepers close to his holiday home whenever he is in Malta. 'It really feels like a second life.'
The ease of mixing with locals was at the top of Ray and wife Elaine's list when looking for a holiday home. They did not want to go somewhere that felt like an extension of the UK, as many Brits who have moved to Spain were finding. 'The property market in Spain has been over-developed. Many went to Spain because they wanted to get away from England, but found themselves surrounded by Britons, with some thinking of moving to Malta.'
Ray knows how foreigners feel about buying property in Malta. After taking early retirement from chocolate giant Cadbury - where he worked for 36 years -he setup a website to help potential buyers and receives around two inquiries a day. This is only one of the many jobs he's taken on and he admits to being busier now than when he was employed.
Malta's climate has played a big part in the couple's decision to invest in Malta, as has the fact that most Maltese can converse well in English. They have also taken political stability into consideration. 'We did not want to be near the Middle East, in an area threatened by terrorism, war and uncertainty.'
One of their favourite spots is the Chinese restaurant Jade Garden, in Paceville, owned by their neighbour George.
Ray points out that the local cuisine is good and well-priced and 'people take pride in their cooking'. To Ray's delight, Elaine has even learnt how to cook a traditional Maltese dish - rabbit.
Anne Eadon-Allen came to Malta for a month, with the intention of buying a holiday home and somewhere to live later in life, and stayed. 'I went back home, packed up everything and moved here.' At the time home was Germany, where Anne had moved after liv- ing in Dubai, where she set up a PR consultancy firm.
Five years on she has put down roots in Malta and last year opened a restaurant in Valletta. Food is her biggest passion and she always dreamt of owning a restaurant. Fusion 4 -which she opened with partner Edgar Brincat -has made this a reality. The couple saw the 500- year-old property, tucked away in St John's Cavalier Street, advertised in the Sunday papers and by the next day had already signed on the dotted lines. 'It felt like fate.' One year down the line, they have succeeded to create a restaurant that offers exquisite cuisine within a stunning setting between the Valletta bastions.
Part of the country's attraction was its architecture, which is very important for Anne, and one of the reasons why she chose to move to Malta. 'I could not believe my eyes when I saw the beautiful buildings on my first visit,' she enthuses.
Malta, she believes, is fast becoming a diverse country, with people from different countries taking up residence. She admits that Malta had not been her first-choice; she had already looked at Portugal -'I found it a little ghettoised with all the British sticking together' and Cyprus, but did not like the architecture of places she could afford.
Malta scored better because English is spoken widely and offers 'second to none' medical care. She describes Malta as safe and considers the friendli- ness of locals as a bonus. She likes the evident respect for both the elderly and children, and finds that living in Malta allows her to go through life at a slower pace. 'There is nothing quite like Malta.'
Clemens Hasengschwandtner is excitedly talking about art as we walk along the narrow streets of Birgu. People stop to greet him. It seems that he has not only made himself at home in one of Malta oldest towns, but has managed to make everyone else comfortable with his presence.
And rightly so, Clemens, 34, has managed to bring some life back to the ancient city by opening its first wine bar in 2001. Tucked away in a narrow alley, the not- easy-to-find Il-Forn (Maltese for oven) reflects his passion - the walls are covered with his paintings and he has even left a mark on the tables, which are covered with a flurry of colours.
He loves the sun and the heat.
Although the small size of the country does not bother him, he admits that it sometimes has its disadvantages and believes that it affects the country negatively both politically and socially.
The Austrian came to Malta 'by accident' in 1997 to work as food and beverage supervisor at a hotel; a chain of events- including making several friends -goaded him stay. He was introduced to Birgu, fell in love immediately and bought a house. Some time later he bought the neighbouring property to use as an art gallery and a few years later converted it into a wine bar.
It was here that he started painting, and although he is aware that the Maltese generally prefer landscapes, which are sold like hot cakes, Clemens is currently going through an experimental phase; he has already started turning his large collection of wine corks into stunning art pieces. 'Art is partly a craft, which you have to learn, but you can play around and try unconventional things.'
He admits that he 'was not very happy' with his first painting, but did not allow this to keep him from trying again, and again... and again until he was satisfied. 'It's a bit like playing tennis.'
Gozo is considered by many to be a sweet little island, and Fred Yandecasteele is adding to this sweetness by whipping up delicious Belgian delicacies. At his shop in Victoria, which is well- known to those with a sweet tooth, Fred is busy preparing chocolates, pancakes and ice cream. Gozitans, Maltese and even foreigners flock to his shop to buy his goodies. He explains that when he moved to Malta's sister island two years ago, he was aware that there was a market for fresh quality products. 'There was no fresh chocolate available, everything was imported,' he says.
Belgian chocolates have always been regarded with reverence by chocolate lovers. Fred became a victim of his own success, and he had to rethink his initial plans of just making delicacies for the Gozitan market. Apart from ferrying chocolates to Malta, enterprising Fred is also thinking of exporting to Libya.
Anyone who tastes his chocolates, ice-cream and pancakes might easily believe that Fred has been making sweets all his life. Fred has only been at it for a few years, following evening school in his native Belgium. Coming from a family of farmers, he was used to hard work, he says, so it is not difficult to put in the long hours to meet the demand.
He explains that he moved to Gozo after holidaying in Malta on an annual basis since the 1990s. 'I liked Gozo because it was quiet and peaceful.'
The chocolatier from the Flemish part of Belgium says he enjoys life on the island because people are friendly and incredibly welcoming. He has integrated well and the knowledge that his chocolates are appreciated is a major satisfaction.