GIVERNY, France (Reuters) - Claude Monet's gardens, the inspiration for his famous "Water Lilies" paintings, reopened to the public on Monday in Giverny, Normandy, as France emerges from three months of lockdown.
The Impressionist painter's lush gardens usually swarm with tourists, attracting more than half a million visitors a year and making them one of the most visited sites in the northern province of Normandy.
But with French borders still closed to foreign tourists as the country cautiously lifts its lockdown, the reopening offers an intimate experience for local visitors, most coming from the nearby cities of Rouen or Paris.
To keep with social distancing rules, no groups are allowed on the estate, visitors are required to wear protective face masks, and they must follow a one-way route and book online.
"At this time of the year we normally welcome 4,000-5,000 people a day, now we can have 900 persons maximum," said head gardener Jean-Marie Avisard, who has worked in the gardens for 32 years.
"We are very happy to show what we do...People will see the garden a bit like on a private visit," he added.
Visitors like Jerome Blanchet, a 73-year old Parisian, welcomed the special moment away from the crowds. "I think it was a very good initiative to reopen. We are seeing it (the garden)in exceptional conditions,"
Roberto Vellutini, a 66 year old Italian who lives in Paris agreed: "There are not a lot of people. It's not annoying...Today is perfect"
The painter lived in the abandoned farm in Giverny with his family from 1883 until his death in 1926.
He transformed it into a picturesque pink mansion, with the grounds centred around a garden with thousands of roses, daffodils, tulips and peonies and a Japanese-style water garden with a green half-moon bridge spanning the water lily pond.
The property was opened to the public in the 1980s and last year it welcomed a record 717,271 visitors. Half were foreign tourists, coming mostly from the United States, China but also Germany, South Korea, Italy, Britain and Japan.
(Reporting by Emilie Delwarde, Clotaire Achi, Writing by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)