Tourists and Parisians panted their way up the stairs of the Eiffel Tower Thursday as the iron monument reopened after its longest closure since World War II due to the coronavirus, with the lifts still closed as a health precaution.
The initial crowds of dozens of people braving blazing early summer heat were a far cry from the usual queues at the tower's base in the centre of the French capital.
But the moment of the reopening of the great edifice was a symbolic one the country emerges from the virus lockdown.
The first visitors had to tackle the steep climb to the first or second level by the stairs, with elevators as well as the top observation deck off-limits because of social distancing concerns.
"I'm tearing up, but they're tears of joy. It's an emotional moment after these difficult months," said Therese, visiting from the southern French city of Perpignan.
"I'm going to climb, but slowly," said the 60-year-old, wearing the obligatory face mask. "And if I don't make it, it's no big deal!"
Those brave enough for the challenge in the heat mounted via the eastern leg or pillar of the 10,100-tonne landmark, coming back down via the west pillar to prevent ascending and descending visitors crossing on the stairs.
Turning around halfway is not allowed, and many people stopped their ascent at the first floor -- more than 300 steps from ground level.
As security guards went around reminding people to wear keep their masks on, Mexican engineering student Alex Mena, who lives in Belgium, said he timed his first-ever visit to Paris to coincide with Thursday's reopening.
"Coming to Paris without seeing the Tour Eiffel is like eating cake without the cherry," he said, even though he found wearing a mask was "annoying".
Tape markings on the ground enforced social distancing, and site operator SETE has promised "daily cleaning and disinfection of public spaces at the tower."
The middle seats on three-person benches were marked off-limits, and visitors were offered sanitising hand gel at regular intervals.
SETE director general Patrick Branco Ruivo said the tower's top level would not reopen until July 15.
When it does, just eight people will be allowed per elevator instead of the usual 45.
The 104-day closure cost the company 27 million euros ($30 million) in lost sales, Branco Ruivo said, with visitor numbers not expected to return to normal anytime soon.
The Eiffel Tower usually receives about seven million visitors per year, some three-quarters from abroad, but ticket sales will remain limited to prevent potentially dangerous crowds.
The absence of crowds was no problem for Iris Wang, a 25-year-old from China. "It's more peaceful and quiet," she told AFP.
'Now is the time!'
France is one of the world's most visited countries, and its tourism industry has taken a hard hit under the lockdown to halt the COVID-19 pandemic, with hotels, restaurants, museums and theatres closed for three months.
France lifted restrictions at European borders on June 15, and the tourism industry hopes that foreign visitors will start pouring in again as the summer season kicks off.
At the Eiffel Tower, ticket prices for children have been halved for July and August.
"Parisians and French, now is the time to come to the Eiffel Tower, you won't have to stand in line!" Branco Ruivo said.
Parisian actress Sabine Beaufils, 57, did exactly that.
"It's great! I haven't been here for a long time," she told AFP as she admired the view from the first floor through her sunglasses, snapping pictures with her mobile phone.
"Parisians don't come often, because of the queues. This time, no queue, nothing! By 10:00 am we were inside, it's extraordinary!" she enthused with a big smile.
While some of the tower's eateries have reopened, the Michelin-starred Jules Verne, which has its own elevator to a dining room perched 125 metres (410 feet) above the ground, will open only on June 30.
© Agence France-Presse