The magical thing about living in Malta is that history is always just around the corner. Whether you’re strolling down the streets of Valletta, wandering around Mdina, or marvelling at some of the oldest man-made structures in the world, history surrounds you everywhere you go. Xemxija, although mostly known for being a quaint seaside town with a good variety of restaurants, was once an important spot for ancient civilisations, and an astonishing amount of historical sites can be found concentrated in what is now called the Xemxija Heritage Trail; what once was known as the Roman Road. This road also became known as the Pilgrims’ Way, as devout pilgrims travelled by this road to reach the famed sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady in Mellieha, usually after the fulfilment of a vow.
The trail is easily found on Google Maps:
And it’s very easy to follow. The road leading up to the start of the trail is quite the climb, but I can assure you, it’s totally worth the effort. At the beginning of the trail, you set foot on an uneven country road, flanked by an ancient Roman wall on the left side which is around 2000 years old. A lovely feature along this trail are the various information placards about different plant species – a thoughtful touch which will help you recognise the types of plants you’ll meet along the way. Slightly further up, another piece of history stands tall and proud – a prehistoric menhir (a large, standing stone) looms towards the sky, and is thought to be related to the burial rites during the Bronze Age (that’s roughly 2000BC). Right next to this imposing stone, uneven, rock-hewn steps lead into the first cavern: the Cave of the Galley (Għar ix-Xini). This cave was used as a human dwelling until some seventy years ago, even though it dates back even to Neolithic times. The cave is a welcome place to catch your breath after the climb to the start of the trail, and sweeping views over the Xemxija valley can be seen from its entrance.
Further up along the trail, on the right hand side, some more stone steps lead onto an open courtyard-like space, the whole left wall of which is occupied by an apiary dating back to Roman times – scores of little niches carved into the rock, where bees would have been kept in order to produce the honey Malta was so known for. This beautiful space is flanked by stone benches overlooking the gorgeous Xemxija Bay – one can only imagine how breath-taking this scene must have looked before the rise of modern buildings. The apiaries are fully accessible and easily explored – a small doorway (mind your head, this door is super low!) leads into a longish stone-carved room, where ancient Romans harvested their honey. The details carved into the rock show the skill and craftsmanship of this ancient people. There are two apiaries, side by side, and both are free for anyone to explore!
Towards the right hand side of the apiaries, a stone staircase leads to the upper level: here a large cave lies above, its mouth wide open like a hungry animal. From the carved plaque one can see that this is the Burial Cave (Għar il-Midfna), a resting place for ancient remains. The cave itself is easily accessed and includes some interesting shelves cleaved out of the rock. The view from this cave is also spectacular, and the cavern itself exudes a sense of calm. Walking straight on from the cave, a large and wise-looking tree spreads out. This is the oldest living carob tree in Malta, believed to be around 1000 years old. The roots of this tree are a web of tangles, scurrying over one-another in knots and twists. Two plaques lie at the base of the tree, a poem written by Frans Scerri in 1999 – one plaque bears the poem in Maltese, and the other in English.
The roots of the ancient carob become makeshift steps onto the next level, where another apiary can be found. This rock-carved beehive is known as the Rustic Apiary, and once you step into its dark interior, it becomes clear why. This apiary was decorated using a rubble wall, going all the way up to the ceiling. Parts of this rubble wall were formed as arches, creating quaint ancient niches. This Rustic cavern is also significantly larger than the other two, and it is easy to imagine this space bustling with ancient life. Stepping out from the darkness inside the cavern and back down the alternative root steps, the trail winds upwards, past the aforementioned Burial Cave. Towards the right-hand side, past a small megalith framing the entryway, a Punic tomb dating back to 5000BC can be seen. While this tomb is not accessible as it lies in a pit, an informative plaque helps to answer some questions. Going further along, past the Punic tomb, one finds a further two caves, as well as an old farmhouse. These caves were used as dwellings in ancient times, with one cave being used by the parents, the other by their children, and the farmhouse was used for keeping their animals. Helpful plaques shed light on the ancient history of these dwellings. Crossing onto a modern road, then going further down, you’ll come across the Roman baths – beautifully built structures which were used as public bathhouses during the time of the Romans. They sure chose a stunning location!
This trail is truly an experience in itself, and the best thing is: it’s totally free! That’s right, you get to wander around, touch, crawl into and live out these ancient sites at NO cost at all. The Xemxija Heritage Trail is a hiker’s paradise, and a history buff’s dream – there are literally historic sites round every corner, each bearing their own story. While i do encourage you to visit this trail and explore the heck out of it, please respect Mother Nature, and keep this area as you found it. Trash cans are hard to come by along this trail, so taking a small garbage bag with you for your trash would be best. Areas like these are a treasure to our heritage, and without preservation they would be lost to time. Make the most of being on an island as jam-packed with history as Malta is, and experience her ancient roots for yourself!