By Yiming Woo and Leo Foeger
PARIS/VIENNA (Reuters) - For Parisian Elie Ayache, the world felt a little more normal on Wednesday: he was back at his favourite cafe, drinking his morning coffee and eating a croissant.
Cafes, restaurants and beer gardens in France and Austria resumed serving customers on the premises, bringing to an end long shutdowns mandated by their governments to try to contain the spread of COVID-19.
"I was impatient to get back to my life, and to the person that I was before," said Ayache as he sat at the terrace outside Les Deux Magots, a cafe that was once a hangout for Ernest Hemingway and other literary celebrities.
France and Austria were the latest European countries to ease restrictions, with Britain, Portugal, Spain and Italy having already begun relaxing social distancing rules in various ways.
The global pandemic forced the closure of hospitality venues around the world. In Paris and Vienna, cities where cafe culture is part of the heritage, the shutdown was felt especially keenly.
At the Cafe Korb in Vienna, proprietor Franz Schubert used scissors to cut the hazard tape that had been used to cordon off tables and chairs on a terrace outside. Soon after, customers started arriving.
The shutdown that ended on Wednesday was the longest closure in the cafe's 117-year history.
"We are very happy to see an end to this," said Schubert. "We are just happy to be able to work again."
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and several ministers visited a beer garden in Vienna, where waiters were carrying trays of foam-topped pints shoulder-high.
"It is a day of joy after a months-long dry spell," Kurz told reporters.
ART OF LIVING
Though their emergence from the pandemic lags behind Asia, the United States, and even some of their European neighbours, Austria and France have seen a drop in infection rates.
The re-opening of cafes and other venues marked a milestone on the journey to getting back to normal life.
For now in France, customers at cafes can only be served outside.
In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron joined his prime minister, Jean Castex, for a coffee near the Elysee Palace.
"Here we go! Terraces, museums, cinemas, theatres ... Let's rediscover the things that make up the art of living," Macron wrote on his Twitter account.
At the Louvre museum, open again on Wednesday, visitors were once again filing past Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and taking selfies. They could linger longer than usual in front of the painting, because the pre-pandemic crush of tourists has not yet returned.
Across town at the Deux Magots cafe, Ayache said that before the pandemic, coming for breakfast was part of his daily routine, allowing him to collect his thoughts. He would even come at weekends.
"I feel at home because I know the place, I know the people," said Ayache, who works in financial markets.
His routine was not completely back to normal. His favourite spot is inside the cafe - still off limits because of COVID-19 restrictions - and he said the terrace was a little chilly.
"But things are going to come back, bit by bit, and I'm very happy," he said.
(Writing by Christian Lowe, editing by Estelle Shirbon)