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Rub shoulders with famous ghosts at Zeffirelli's villa – only €5,000 a night

Acclaimed director's Italian retreat on the Amalfi coast reopens as luxury hotel – three years after sale

"Leonard Bernstein, Laurence Olivier, Maria Callas, Elizabeth Taylor – it sounds like a legend, doesn't it?" mused Italy's most celebrated opera and film director, Franco Zeffirelli, as he recalled the guests who had passed through his retreat on the Amalfi coast.

For 35 years, until he sold it in 2007, Villa Tre Ville was a place that gave him "the opportunity to put together my mind with those of creative geniuses", he told the Guardian. "But I cannot enjoy it any more, and so it is right that other people should be able to enjoy it."

This month, Zeffirelli's house started a new life as a hotel, offering guests the chance to brush shoulders with the ghosts of celebrities past and present. The three-villa estate's links with the arts go back to the 1920s, when it was a meeting place for Russian cultural exiles. Sergei Diaghilev was a guest. More recent visitors to Villa Tre Ville have included Liza Minnelli and Elton John.

When Zeffirelli's biographer, the late David Sweetman, travelled out to meet him, he later recounted how: "Eventually, some ancient servant let me in, and I was shown on to this opera set. I've never seen anything like it. It seemed, just possibly, the most beautiful place on Earth."

Built on the rocky coastline near Positano, Villa Tre Ville offers sublime views over the Mediterranean. But its originality as a hotel, which will go at least some way towards justifying prices of up to ¤5,000 (£4,171) a night, is that its new owners have left it as untouched as possible. The biggest suite, named after Zeffirelli himself, is much as it was when he moved out. The bedroom furniture, inlaid with mother of pearl, was brought by the director from Syria. Guests will even be able to browse through the books he left behind.

Villa Tre Ville was bought by a local hotel owner, Giovanni Russo, who has two establishments in Sorrento. "The thinking was to alter it as little as possible", he said. "And we have made really very few changes."

The old bread oven had been turned into a shower cabin, he said. But even an eccentric greenhouse, made from part of the set for one of Zeffirelli's productions of La Traviata, had been kept and adapted for use as accommodation.

The cheapest of the 12 suites and rooms is available for a mere €1,100, including breakfast, but not VAT.

Zeffirelli said the years in which he owned the estate "were the very best years of my life, when I was climbing the steps of my career. But it could not go on forever. The time of climbing the steps of Positano is over. And I have a beautiful house in Rome where I can read and entertain my friends."

For a man of 87, he remains extraordinarily active, having just completed a cycle of operas staged at the Arena in Verona. But his work schedule has gradually diminished, and next year, he said, he was booked to direct "only three operas".

Zeffirelli's biographer recalled that getting to Villa Tre Ville was a rather less than luxurious experience. "It took hours. The taxi bill was unreal, but eventually we arrived at the top of this little winding road. And there was just a gate, and I had to go down all these bloody stairs to the villa."

So that the estate's well-heeled visitors do not face the same difficulties, the new owner of Villa Tre Ville has installed a lift to carry guests down from the road. "This was the real change we made", he said. "And it was a major work of engineering." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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