Europe's Hottest Retirement Spots

You don't have to spend a lifetime in the corner office to dream of retiring to a villa in Europe

You don't have to spend a lifetime in the corner office to dream of retiring to a villa in Europe. Camillo Chiodo, a high-school math teacher who lives in Mississauga with his wife, Grace, a counsellor at the University of Toronto, is approaching retirement. At 54, he'll be eligible for his pension next year (he intends to teach for another three years). Unlike many Canadian couples who plan to wile away their golden years in Arizona or Florida, the Chiodos' eyes are trained on somewhere even farther afield. For them, the choice is between Italy, where Camillo was born, or Portugal, Grace's native land. “We would like to go back,” says Camillo.

Europe rarely leaps to mind as a retirement destination for Canucks. The exchange rate with the euro is steep, property prices are typically high, and the climate isn't necessarily much better. But a growing number of Canadians are looking across the Atlantic for a retirement haven. Why the rush? Many emigrated from Europe after the Second World War, and still have strong emotional and financial ties to their homelands. According to Rod Burylo, a chartered financial planner with Calgary-based Canadians Retiring Abroad Corp., more and more of his clients are inheriting real estate in locales like Italy and Greece, and choosing to renovate it and move back rather than sell. Many also receive pensions from European governments, paid into bank accounts there. Accessing the money while overseas–say, during a three- or four-month annual trip–is both convenient and, in some cases, tax-friendly.

Of course, you don't have to be from the old country to appreciate its charms. An eagerness to explore the European lifestyle, or take advantage of Central Europe's emerging real estate market (think Croatia or Turkey) can lead the way. Here are four destinations convincing post-career Canadians that the long flight across the pond is well worth it.

Dublin, Ireland
Average Jan. temp. 5ûC
Average July temp. 15ûC
What your money will buy
A two-bedroom duplex with car park in the city centre: Û275,000 ($402,000). A two-bedroom apartment with car park in Ballsbridge: Û420,000 ($613,000). A seven-bedroom home sitting on 1.8 acres backing onto the Belvedere Rugby club: Û55 million ($80.3 million).

In 2001, Dave Wilson retired from his Toronto-based position as president and CEO of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario and moved to Dublin. He's not Irish, but 20 years of professional collaboration between him and Emerald Islanders, as well as his desire for better weather (“There is a misconception that it's always raining in Ireland,” he says), convinced him to give living in Dublin a shot. Three and half years into his Erin adventure, his e-mail address–daveoncloud9@…–says it all. “I am very happy with the experience,” he reports.

According to Heather Clarke, director of advanced financial planning support at Investors Group, Ireland is a popular retirement destination in part because of a favourable tax treaty. If you give up Canadian residency (which does not mean giving up citizenship), “you can withdraw your RRSP virtually tax-free,” she says.

Wilson acknowledges some tax advantages, but emphasizes the cost of living is high–Ireland is no bargain. In fact, Wilson didn't even bother buying property. Instead, he rents a penthouse in a gated two-building complex developed on the former British Embassy property in Ballsbridge, Dublin's equivalent of Toronto's Rosedale. “The cost of Dublin real estate is very high even before adding the exchange factor,” explains Wilson. “Also, if one buys a property and wants to redevelop it, one has to go through a complex, drawn-out and some would say arbitrary planning approval process.” Even so, the demand for housing in Ireland appears to be growing, and some suggest it would be crazy not to get into the market now.

Economically rejuvenated over the past two decades, Ireland now has the highest per capita GDP in the European Union, except for Luxembourg. That means more sophisticated cultural events, in addition to the majestic mountains, rugged sea views, and verdant forests the country is known for. “I thought that I would spend more time playing golf in Ireland than I do,” says Wilson. “Instead, I find myself taking advantage of Dublin as a European capital city and going to the theatre, concerts and other such events a lot more.”

Calabria, Italy
Average Jan. temp. 11ûC
Average July temp. 26ûC
What your money will buy
A three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in the village of Scalea, with a terrace and clear view to the Mediterranean: Û85,000, or $124,000. If you're up for renovating, a three-story home in the old centre of Santa Maria del Cedro, with dramatic views of the sea and easy access to the A3 autoroute: Û28,000, or $41,000.

You've heard of Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. But Calabria? At the southern tip of Italy–the boot's ankle and toe, if you will–it's a long-impoverished province largely governed by the local mafia, la'ndrangheta. So it's hardly an obvious retirement destination. But for Camillo Chiodo, who hails from Sartano, a tiny enclave 30 kilometres west of Calabria's biggest city, Cosenza, the region is at the top of his list. Even though he's only returned twice since moving to Canada at 9, its rugged beauty and warm climate beckon him and his wife. The inexpensive real estate doesn't hurt, either. “My family owns some property there, a couple lots I could build on if I wanted to,” Chiodo says. “But I'm not sure I would stick around in my hometown. It is very small and the amenities are few.”

A seaside escape is more likely. The Tyrrhenian coast, increasingly popular with Italians but still largely undiscovered by foreigners, is dotted with small towns, such as Scalea or Tropea, perched between the sparkling Mediterranean and the craggy fig- and olive-covered mountains that define Calabria's interior. You're not likely to find the same palatial villas here as you might elsewhere in the country, but the sandy beaches, whitewashed homes capped with terracotta tiles, and fresh local cuisine characterized by swordfish, aubergines, almonds and honey, offer Tuscany-level decadence unspoiled by mass tourism, at a fraction of the price.

Chiodo's biggest concern about moving to the region is health care. In his opinion, the system “is not quite as good as it is here.” Non-Italian speakers would be wise to think about the language barrier, too. However, for those lusting after the dolce vita at a discount to the high-priced, crowded Amalfi Coast, Italy's deep south may be the destination.

Dubrovnik and Southern Dalmatia, Croatia
Average Jan. Temp. 10ûC
Average July Temp. 26ûC
What your money will buy
Seaside property on the Dalmatian coast with house big enough to accommodate two families: 300,000 to Û1.5 million ($440,000 to $2.2 million). Two-bedroom apartment on the Istrian peninsula and close to the Adriatic: Û120,000 ($175,000); less if you're willing to move farther inland.

In Dubrovnik and along the Dalmatian coast, few traces remain of the bitter fighting that took place in the early 1990s after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Optimism, encouraged by the anticipated 2007 admittance of Croatia into the European Union, has generally replaced animosity. And that optimism has been met with a slew of happy house hunters looking to snap up Mediterranean properties for a song. Interest in the region has been so strong recently that, in the city of Dubrovnik, nicknamed the Pearl of the Adriatic, house prices have shot up 20% a year for the past five years, and are now nearly on par with average property prices in Spain, France and Italy.

That's no deterrent to many in Canada's 100,000-strong Croatian community who are now approaching retirement. John Marion, 48, president of the Canadian-Croatian Chamber of Commerce in Toronto, says a few dozen couples he knows have invested in property along the Dalmatian coast, enjoy summering there now and intend to retire on Croatia's shores. In fact, Marion and wife, Edita, are on the hunt for a seaside property themselves, and look forward to one day spending six to nine months a year in Croatia.

If you're looking slightly further under the radar, the northwest peninsula of Istria, located less than an hour's drive from the Trieste airport in Italy, is gaining prominence as a place for foreign retirees. According to John Walsh, a broker who specializes in selling Croatian real estate through, about Û120,000 could get you a lovely two-bedroom apartment within 300 meters of the sea. If you're willing to go slightly inland, a well-maintained house can be had for less than Û100,000. As far as activities go, Dubrovnik remains the cultural heart of the area, and sailing is a popular pastime all up and down the coast. There aren't many golf courses, but the Istrian regional government is pushing to develop them.

Prague, Czech Republic
Average Jan. Temp. -1ûC
Average July Temp. 17ûC
What your money will buy
Non-EU citizens who want to purchase property in Prague must first form a limited liability company. Then you can spend Û300,000 ($438,000) to buy a two-bedroom apartment in the historic central area, known as District 1, close to the Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square. Or look at District 4, where a large ex-pat community resides and a big three-bedroom unrenovated house can be had for Û370,000 ($540,000).

Peter and Suzanne Formanek never intended to settle in Prague. In fact, in 1994, when Peter retired from a 20-year career with London Life Insurance Co., the couple bought and moved to a farm in Courtenay on Vancouver Island. But a holiday the same year to the newly formed Czech Republic, including Peter's hometown of Prague, convinced the couple to rethink their plans. “I fell in love with it,” says Suzanne, 60. At first, their stays varied in length–three weeks, six months, a year. But in 1996 the couple bought an apartment in the popular Vinohrady neighbourhood for about $42,500 and started renovations. By 2000, they were living in Prague full-time. They sold the farm in 2002, and bought another apartment in Prague next door to their old place for $100,000. They now return to Ontario twice a year to visit grandchildren.

Most of the estimated 300 Canadians retired in Prague have some sort of family connection to the land. But Peter says that the city is increasingly attracting British, Dutch, American and Canadian retirees, especially since the admittance of the Czech Republic to the European Union in 2004. Why? A winning combination of cultural sophistication and low prices–groceries, transportation and entertainment still cost half what they do in Canada. And while the real estate market has heated up in recent years, putting property in the historical centre out of reach for most, bargains can still be found in up-and-coming neighbourhoods like Zizkov, only a 10-minute tram ride from downtown. “I'm a designer by profession, so places appeal to me aesthetically,” explains Suzanne Formanek. “Prague is probably one of the most beautiful cities on the face of the earth.”