Greetings from the Boot part 8: Berbera in Montese

Berbera in the goat shed of her farm
Berbera in the goat shed of her farm (photos: Maarten van Eerd)

The first heat wave of this year rolls over Italy, but at an altitude of 950 meters the temperature is still bearable. If I inherit from farm La Fonte there is not a goat to be seen. 'They are 3 kilometers away,' explains Berbera, 'this is where we make the cheese and keep our organic chickens.' Berbera is a sturdy woman with short, almost white curls and twinkling eyes. She just turned 58.

'This year I celebrate that I have been in Italy longer than I have lived in the Netherlands, 29 years.'

Paolo, her husband, enters the kitchen. He leans on a stool and seems breathless. Nevertheless, he gives me a warm welcome and immediately starts to tell. He underwent a major transplant this year and is recovering. He's sorry, but he can't stay; he has an appointment at the hospital.

"I thought I lost him last year." Berbera watches him lovingly as he walks to the car with one of the volunteers. 'They only do this operation here in Modena and Bologna. He was actually in a room with an Italian from Culemborg, where I come from.'

Destined for Italy

She sometimes wondered if it had to be this way. At primary school, the master told about the Apennines and how dry it was there. "I had never been to Italy, but I was sure it wasn't true and I said so."

8 years later she went to Italy for the first time, the Rome trip in the sixth class of vwo. When the sleeper train stopped at Bologna station, she woke up. “I looked out over the city, the lights and the rising sun and I knew this was what I wanted. Then we came to Rome.'

She never imagined such a thing could exist. She's still obsessed with it the eternal city. 'There is so much culture, tradition, art and you are surrounded by history.' Her face lights up when she talks about it. 'My sister started studying there a little later, so I had a good reason to go there more often.'

Berbera at the kitchen table of her farmhouse

She went to study musicology in Utrecht. Not because she's so musical. 'I love people and what drives them and history. Music is an expression where all of that comes together.' She wasn't sure what she wanted, so she got her teaching license and took a teaching job. She spent the summer before she started as a volunteer with a Dutch couple in Italy. In the Apennines above Modena, she helped on their spice farm. She bumped into Paolo at a party.


Paolo is from Montese in the province of Modena. His parents had a traditional one farm (farm, ed.), but his father died young.

“It really hasn't been easy at home. After high school he fled the parental home. When I got to know him, he worked for an energy company in Bologna, but he is completely unsuitable for official, bureaucratic work.' In addition to his normal work, he tried to revive the family business by cultivating biodynamic herbs.

Berbera was in love, but also a down-to-earth Dutch and she had just taken a job. Teaching was not her calling. '30 children, one hour a week. I wanted to introduce them to beautiful music. They had very different ideas about that.'

She kept in touch with Paolo and took language courses with Dante Alighieri, the Italian cultural institute in the Netherlands. 'I learned to speak Italian really well. The only problem was that I was very good at preserving art and emotions, but I didn't know the word for mop.'

Berbera points out where the source is


'I was stuck in the Netherlands; felt like I was turning into a gray mouse.'

She wanted to get out of the functional, orderly tunnel she was in, Italy and Paolo beckoning. So she packed her bags and moved to Montenese. Paolo had just quit his job and was starting a new business. The timing could be more convenient.

'We moved here, but never in his mother's house. I always wanted something for myself, something with privacy. Walking into the kitchen in the morning and immediately meeting your mother-in-law is something like that.'

Paolo started a company that created gardens and parks, and Berbera?

“The first year was quite difficult. I didn't know anyone here except Paolo and his mother. That was a treasure, but to sit with her all day now.' She started a company that offered organized trips. Walking tours where she set out the routes and arranged the overnight stays and the transport of the luggage.

The first tour was still close but it took off, especially with the focus on the Rome 2000 activities. 'In that time I really saw and got to know all of Italy, because I guided those trips myself. During the season I traveled from Piemonte to Puglia and everything in between.' She cannot hide the pleasure she took from the adventure and the contact with the travelers.

In the cheese dairy

The cover

It seems like the story of her life. The leisure travel market has changed. There was less demand for walking packages, Berbera thinks it had to do with the rise of the internet.

'At the same time we really wanted children and I was away from home a lot. It was time for a little more stability, a little more roots.' Paolo's company, which had meanwhile been merged into a cooperative, was doing fine and Berbera threw herself into the administration.

'It was only during that period that it really dawned on me that I had really ended up in a different world. Of course this was home, but I had also been away a lot. Now I was alone in the office in the morning and often felt lost and even lonely.'

Salvation came from the befriended pastor. The organ in the local church was beautifully restored. It is one of the largest and most beautiful organs in the Apennines.

“They just didn't have anyone who could play it. I had never played the organ before, but I threw myself completely into it. Administration in the morning and organ playing in the afternoon. As a result, I was of course also at all the important events in the congregation: funerals, baptisms and sometimes a wedding. It was the ideal integration process. Before that, I was a bit of an outsider. Everyone knew me, but I didn't know anyone.'

In the end, the kids never came. She has resigned herself to it.

Farm with a view

And an agriturismo?

Now 8 years ago they left the cooperative, there was too much hassle and things were not right. "That's the disadvantage of doing the administration, that you start suspecting things like that."

They had built a beautiful new home next to the old farmhouse, but the land itself was beginning to 'run wild'. 'It was either the podere revive or sell the lot. The latter was not an option for Paolo.'

Berbera wanted to do something with guests and tourists again. An agriturismo, a combined farming and tourism business, seemed the ideal solution.

'I wanted to biosenable, organic and a traditional mixed farm.'

They started with chickens and potatoes and from 2017 the goats were added.

It turned out to be more difficult than they had thought. 'Making good cheese is an art and goats are quite difficult. Of course we had no experience either.'

Due to an error at the municipality, or was it 'opposition?', they also missed out on the subsidy for the agriturismo. Berbera's soft features harden when she mentions it. Through hard work and with the help of volunteers, friends and the help of the community, they have now created a beautiful company. "But it wasn't easy."

They sell their products in markets in Bologna and Modena, in organic shops and through local channels. 'The wood that we have here in abundance is also a nice source of income.'

Goats outside the new stable

But the future

Paolo's illness has made the future very uncertain. In the past year, Berbera has kept the company running almost single-handedly. She's not going to keep that up indefinitely. We have hope again after the operation, but Paolo is a shadow of his former self and we now have no business succession. The coming year will have to tell.

'I would like to go to the opera again, enjoy culture and music. That is what makes Italy so beautiful, the colorful diversity of people. The way they find creative solutions to problems that arise because the system malfunctions.' A burst of laughter flies across the table.

Would she go back to the Netherlands, if…? No, she still feels Dutch, but one who dreams in Italian. 'I have become so used to the culture, the space, the beautiful things, the freedom. I don't think I could settle in the Netherlands anymore.'

She proudly shows me the new goat shed. 'When Paolo fell ill, everyone from the village came to help to finish him off, without 'se o ma', if or but.' The kids almost jump out of their pens with excitement.

"This is actually kind of my life." She says it with a wide gesture around her. We are at the source where the farm is named after.

Berbera bee the source, the namesake of the company

'There is a medieval path, which is bumpy, but you can get to the source quite easily. From there you can either take the difficult, half-overgrown path, or the simple way back to where you already were.'

The difficult path

On departure she gives me a kiss and a delicious cheese. She is rightly proud of it.

3 tips from Berbera to make your emigration to Italy a success

  • Be careful when buying houses. A good geometra is worth its weight in gold and not being well informed can cost a lot of money.
  • Immerse yourself in your community, find a way to contribute, but also connect with people who understand your situation because they are going through the same thing. Berbera has had a lot of support from a group of foreign women in Bologna.
  • Make sure you continue to enjoy what is beautiful and fun, even if it is sometimes difficult as an emigrant. The delicious food, the love, the beautiful art, culture and environment are always there.
Berbera on the market in Bologna

Az.Agr. La Fonte produces quality organic food: goat cheese, chicken meat, potatoes and pumpkins. In addition, the company develops various forms of rural tourism. You are most welcome.

Written by Maarten van Erd

Maarten van Eerd (1967) has been visiting Italy every year since he was born. He emigrated to Italy with his wife Dominique Stol in 2019 and now lives in the Apennines between Bologna and Florence. After an adventure as B&B owners, they now focus on their passions, writing and counselling.
Maarten published his first novel 'Virus' under the pseudonym Martin Deer in 2021. In addition, he offers writers shelter and advice in The Writer's Tower. He shares his passion for Italy, the people, the culture, the cuisine and life as an immigrant through blogging and writing articles.


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