Clarese Partis, a 39-year-old software designer from Los Angeles, has always wanted to work from an offbeat spot far from the crowds.
So when she was offered such an opportunity, she instantly grabbed it.
Last week, Partis landed in the Sardinian village of Ollolai in Italy for a free stay paid by the local municipality. It’s part of a program aimed at digital nomads who want to temporarily relocate to work in the center of the island, amid farmers and grazing sheep.
She’s the first digital nomad to arrive — and already she said it feels like a life-changer.
“I have been traveling as a digital nomad since the past two years, last in Zanzibar,” said Partis, but “when the opportunity for Ollolai came along I was excited to give it a try.”
“I felt I needed a change of place,” she said, though “not a touristy one, but [instead] surrounded by nature, fresh air, mountains, beautiful beaches, where I could find more solace, peace and a slower-paced lifestyle.”
The small village of Ollolai
Ollolai is located in the wild Barbagia area far from the Sardinia’s VIP-packed coastlines — a place where old traditions survive and bandits once lived in caves.
Through time, locals left in search of a brighter future elsewhere, emptying the ancient district, now covered in street art depicting rural life.
In the past century, Ollolai’s population shrank from 2,250 to 1,300, with only a handful of babies born each year.
The village adopted a highly publicized measure in 2018 to revive the old district: selling crumbling homes for 1 euro.
“That was a major success — many foreigners bought and restyled dozens of forsaken dwellings,” said Mayor Francesco Columbu told CNBC. “Now, after investing in high-speed internet, with this new project ‘Work from Ollolai’ we want to make our village a digital nomad hub.”
Free stays for remote workers
Ollolai’s town hall has earmarked 20,000 euros ($21,460) to host 30 remote workers from all over the world, who can stay in the village, one at a time, over the next two years.
Online applications are open through December. Those who are chosen can stay for free for up to three months at a time, which is the maximum period non-Europeans can remain in Italy without a visa.
For now, Partis plans to stay just one month, though she said she might consider prolonging her Sardinian experience at a later stage.
The next teleworker is arriving from Singapore, said Veronica Matta, head of local cultural association Sa Mata, which handles the “Work from Ollolai” program with the mayor’s office.
“We expect a lot of Americans,” she said. “Our goal is to revive Ollolai with new people of different cultures and languages that may share their experience [as] digital nomads with the residents.”
The budget, from the town hall’s coffers, will go toward renting homes from local families for the digital nomads, at a cost of roughly 350 euros a month for a furnished two-bedroom dwelling. Utilities, bills and town hall service taxes will also be covered, said Matta, but transportation and airplane tickets are not.
The homes, which used to belong to shepherd and farmer families, who in the past used to sleep on the ground floor with their animals, come with an office and high-speed internet connection.
Workers will be invited to locals fairs and festivals, according to Matta. Partis said she was invited to a party on the town’s piazza the night before.
“I just had to give my landowner a symbolic one euro for the house rental,” said Partis. “Locals are so warm and welcoming, and it’s not because they want to sell you something, like in touristy places.”
“I love to mingle with the people here,” she said.
A reciprocal arrangement
Winners can stay for free in Sardinia — if, that is, they agree to give something back to the local community before they leave, said Matta.
“This is not a free holiday,” said Matta. “They must have a proven background as a digital nomad and leave a concrete piece of work at the end of their stay — be it a conference, an essay, research paper or documentary.”
Partis plans to give a lecture on what it means to be a digital nomad, in general and specifically in Ollolai, she said.
Matta stressed that “professional remote workers from all fields are encouraged to apply: technology, media, finance, real estate, architecture — also artists, writers, musicians, scientists and academics.”
But that’s provided they leave behind a “knowledge jolt” that enriches the village culture, she said.
More beautiful than expected
Partis already loves her new home in the village’s historical district. It has two bedrooms and a wonderful panoramic balcony with views of a pristine valley and woods, where she finds inspiration while working, she said.
For now, she said she’s balancing her work and desire to sightsee across Sardinia.
“I’m still settling in. There are days I spend traveling to explore the beautiful places around, and others I shut myself at home catching up on my work,” she said.
She said a typical day in Ollolai is similar to her life elsewhere: yoga meditation in the morning, followed by work, then a walk outside and a drive to the coast or the mountains to enjoy the silence and views.
“I don’t drink so the bar is not my top place to hang out,” she said. “Instead, I love going to the farmers’ market to pick fresh ingredients such as truffles, making pasta and gnocchi with pesto. The food is amazing.”
She said that Ollolai is more beautiful than she ever expected, and the friendliness of its people surprised her.
“There is so much to explore in Sardinia. I’m glad I am here with enough time to immerse myself in the island and its culture.”