Whether you are living in Malta or just passing through, you will quickly learn that the topic of weather is of critical importance to the locals. Malta is incredibly small; the total land mass of the three islands in the Maltese Archipelago (Malta, Gozo, and Comino) is a mere 316 square kilometres. Surrounded by deep Mediterranean sea, far enough from Sicily to the north and Tunisia to the west, the islands are decidedly isolated; embraced entirely by sea and air and thus subject to the capricious whims of the weather.
Although Malta is known for the long hot summers, I have been bewitched by the winter weather this year — crisp air, deep cobalt sea, and skies filled with sun ray clouds. This winter in Malta is similar to how Charles Dickens once described the spring season: “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”
Malta winters, however, are not always so beautiful — sometimes there are harsh rainstorms that flood the streets and the air becomes damp. The Tramuntana wind from the North whips like ice and you cannot escape it. The Xlokk wind from Libya, known locally as the Gibli, rare in winter, but occurring nonetheless, transports the Northern African sands to Malta, covering the entire island in a thick layer of dust. In winter, the sun can hide behind grey clouds that roll in off the sea and settle over the island for too long. The days are too short, darkness when you rise and darkness again too soon; but this is true of other places, not just Malta. Winter is generally, at least for countries north of the equator, the less favoured of the seasons.
Although the Maltese are known for their passionate love of summer, I wonder if perhaps spring — the mezzo tempo — is the superior season. The change of temperature, usually occurring in March, always yields the possibility of renewal and rebirth. Similar to the change of year in December, the first hints of spring mark the start of something new. After the feasts of Christmas, there is a quiet interlude, a hibernation period of January and February and then March arrives and the sun becomes brighter and stronger and there is an awakening.
The sea is at its best in spring, I am told — clean and crisp, calmed after the roughness of winter and before it becomes tainted by summer sun lotions. The Horticultural Society organises the Spring Show, showcasing the best of local flowers, fruits, and vegetables. The International Fireworks Festival takes over the Grand Harbour in Valletta for three days, reminding tourists and locals alike of the intricate history of fireworks on the island. The forty days of Lent draw to an end, the traditional figoli almond cakes are prepared, and Easter is celebrated; most notably a commemoration of the resurrection, but also for the return of springtime.
Spring has always been deeply connected to the agricultural community. New animals are born, the land is ploughed, and the winter crops are lifted. Perhaps the most delicious springtime crop in Malta are the strawberries. The village of Mgarr boasts the best strawberries on the island and hosts the annual Festa Frawli (or Strawberry Festival) held in April. If you have the pleasure of attending this feast, you will taste every possible strawberry confection that your imagination can conjure. What began as a small gathering in the local square to celebrate the harvest, has thrived each year, nearly outgrowing the village limits.
Recently, while driving through the village of Mgarr one afternoon, I spot a small stand at the side of the road. My eyes are immediately overcome by the colour — the bright glowing red something on top of the small wooden table. There is a sign, marked simply in red lettering with a single word: Frawli. Malta is full of beautiful things, hidden gems, and charming views to be sure, but at this moment, I am in awe of the glory of this small collection of fruit. This chance encounter with the first pickings of the season is my first evidence of spring. I pull over and gather the courage to test my limited Maltese language abilities, asking the proprietor, Kemm? Two Euros, she replies in English. I buy four small boxes and bite into one of the giant specimens immediately — the taste is incredibly sweet and dense; I can taste the brilliance of the colour, I can taste spring.
This essay originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Il-Bizzilla, Air Malta's In Flight Magazine.