By Gabriele Pileri and Cristiano Corvino
ROME (Reuters) - The familiar tinkling of ceramic cups and chatter returned to coffee bars across most of Italy on Monday, as rigid COVID-19 restrictions were eased.
After severe curbs over the Christmas and New Year period, two-thirds of Italy was declared a "yellow zone" allowing bars in those less risky areas to serve customers at counters and tables again instead of offering only take-away in plastic cups.
"We felt dead without bars," said Rome resident Tiziana Baldo after a barista poured her drink in a bar in central Rome.
"It is beautiful to come here and talk to the people behind the bar; they make us feel alive every morning before going to work," she added.
While much of Europe remains in strict lockdown, bars and restaurants in parts of Italy can again serve customers at tables and counters until 6 p.m. After that, it's take-away until 10 p.m., when a curfew kicks until 5 a.m. the next day.
"I am very happy because at least this big waste of plastic (takeaway cups) will end," said construction worker Leonardo Angelini after downing his morning coffee in a bar.
The Health Ministry eased restrictions in 15 of Italy's 20 regions, as the number of people infected continued to fall. Five regions remain red zones and travelling between regions of any colour remains prohibited until mid-February.
Italy was one of the worst-hit countries during the first wave of the pandemic and has Europe's second highest death toll from COVID-19, behind Britain. But cases and deaths have been falling, with 11,252 new cases on Sunday.
Tourism attractions such as the Colosseum, which had been closed for two months, and the Vatican Museums, which were shut for three months, also reopened, giving the few tourists who did show up an unusual thrill.
"I am so happy, for the first time there is something positive in COVID," said Benoit Duplais, a visitor from Belgium who had just arrived at the Colosseum from the Vatican.
"I went to the Vatican now and I saw the Sistine Chapel alone. And so I want to see this also ... it is fantastic," he said.
Tourism is the lifeblood of Rome's economy, and many hope the easing of restrictions is a glimmer of hope for the future.
"We are always hopeful," said bar owner Giuseppe Unico. "We are waiting for the return of tourists, but right now this thought is like a utopia."
(Additional reporting by Emily Roe and Eleanor Biles; Writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mike Collett-White)