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If you popped your head through the door of a certain coffee shop on the Chiltern Hills last Saturday morning, you'd see a bunch of ladies gathered around the bar, sharing coffees and a chat.

If you looked closer, you'd spot that other than all of them being in their yoga gear, they were all very different. A range of ages, attitudes, accents and levels of make up! Yet, over lattes and freshly brewed tea, the chat was relaxed, heads were leaning in from time to time to share little pieces of private information and then back to smiles, seemingly not a care in the world. Perfect, Nancy-Meyers- movie-worthy moment, really.

How did we get here? Let me tell you a little story about making space and connecting.

About nine months ago, I decided to make space for yoga again in my life.
I found this yoga class that suits me. I like the teacher, she's got a sharp sense of humour and doesn't take herself too seriously. I like the studio, it has two skylights that look straight up into the sky when you lie down for shavasana. And most importantly, I like the class, it's hard enough and forces me to concentrate if I want to keep my balance.  
So I made a start and I am looking forward to my yoga classes. They provide me with space away from my daily routine of 'train into London, work, train out of London'. The move to the suburbs was meant to lead to this perfect balance between suburban bliss and buzzing London professionalism. Ha! It worked for a while, but lately this routine was just turning to a rat race. I simply had taken too much on. Once I finished a paper I was working on - on top of work and commute and all that - I promised myself to start taking it easy. Enough with the glorification of being busy.
So, I made space for coffee in my post-yoga Saturday morning routine!
Ground breaking? It was for me, at the time! 
I look forward to my yoga classes and my Saturday morning café routine. I started exploring the different cafes around the Chilterns... Twelve Twenty in Old Amersham, The Grocer at No5 in Gerrard's Cross, the Yurt at the Wild Strawberry Café in Great Missenden... cosy little spots with great coffee and brunch. 
You'd be surprised how easy it is to foolishly guilt yourself to rushing back home to do the chores, go to the supermarket, cook a decent meal and ultimately spend precious time with your partner. All worthy tasks, but so is making space for yourself. An hour is not going to break your day or let anybody down!
And then, what about sitting there for a coffee by yourself? We have these images of French and Italian women, dressed to the nines, having a coffee alone and we deem as daring and mysterious creatures ... I am not French nor Italian but I'm the kind of person who goes for a coffee alone if the sun is shining and no one is available to join. Are you?
The ladies in my yoga class have always been chatty and friendly. I eventually, decided to ask two of them, who I'd been chatting with the most, if they wanted to join me for a coffee on a Saturday morning. I couldn't help trying to sound chilled and you know, 'whatever', whilst I was rolling my mat away.  They couldn't that day but they said they'd love to next week. To my amazement they kept their word and next week, they came up to me after class and off we went!
Long story short, the word spread and we started inviting the whole class along. 
We made a choice to connect.
To my amazement - still - even some of the ladies who are normally quieter, or too well-put together, or might initially look out of place in a yoga class and you wouldn't think they'd stick around, have been keen to join in our little café routine. Last Saturday was the first time that one of the mums, who normally has to run back home, came up to me and said, 'do you have time for a coffee'?
I can't tell you how flattered I felt. That made me happy.

Don't underestimate the power of asking someone for a coffee.
Even if they turn you down, you've put the signal out there. Chances are, they won't leave you hanging for too long.
I made a choice... and then we made a choice together... and I've now met this bunch of powerhouse, accomplished women, who'd otherwise go about their day quietly, trying to cram it all in. It's a privilege that they all choose to spend some of their precious time chatting over strategic marketing and teenage behaviour, time management and commuting, yoga styles and relationships and sharing thoughts, concerns and (yes) favourite restaurants.
There is no major preaching moment here. When I drive back home, my day feels a bit lifted.  

Happy Soul Brunch - Red Rooster - Harlem

After a fun weekend in New York, Mondays can feel a bit deflated.
When you are only visiting for a couple of days though - not to mention it’s taken you thirty something years to visit - you want to make the most of it, even on a Monday. 
So, hop on the tube, oh wait they call it subway here, up to 125th St.
Destination is the Harlem-based, happy soul kitchen at Red Rooster
It’s buzzing...the bar, the restaurant, the kitchen, all up and at it, even on a Monday!
Fried chicken and waffle, with maple syrup; then look further for Marcus's Cornbread.
When your mum says 'eat your greens',ask for Red Rooster's Mac & Greens, delicious! 

The setup...
70's cool funk-don't-give-a-damn. Fun, colourful and easy-going in other words!

The food...
feels like someone is giving you a hug.
The sides are most interesting - Grits, Mac & Greens, Cornbread, all mostly covered in stringy cheddar. The cheddar in this country is a bit different, it's gooey and when melted it doesn't turn to a cold mess.

One of the starters was Yep Fried Chicken and Waffle, yes, I've had it before, I've even made fried chicken. This whole dish though was balanced out nicely. Crunchy, slightly spicy - just to tickle your tongue - fried chicken, versus fluffy waffle. Hint of chilli versus sweet and oaky maple syrup. Balance people! It works in life and in food.
'Come again?'
Oats darling, cooked down to a smooth cream covered in cheese! Good stuff!
Then more fried chicken, this time alongside southern delicacies. Miss B's Biscuits & Gravy. Oh my! Wow!  I tried making biscuits once...didn't go very well, so I did appreciate being able to try the real ones, fluffy and light, as they are meant to be.
Make sure to include this happy place in your food tour of New York, if you are after an easy, satisfying morning spot of brunch.  

Harlem townhouses
Gorgeous Miss B's Biscuits and Gravy

Quirky restroom...strictly no selfies please!  

Grits, Miss B's Biscuits & Gravy and Mac & Greens, a happy, soulful spread 

Romantic Loire - Chateau Villandry

Visiting the Loire valley in spring is pure heaven.
You'd think that after a couple of visits to the chateaux, everything starts looking alike and once you've seen one of them, you've seen them all.
Not quite!

Chateau de Chambord is the big, impressive, decadent one.
Chateau de Chenonceau is the historic one, stretching over river Cher. 
Chateau De Langeais is a family, military fortress.

And after all that, Chateau Villandry felt like the romantic home - the relatable one.

The difference between Chateau de Villandry and all other chateaux in the area  is that this one is approachable.

There is no long driveway to get up to it, no moats, rivers or extended grounds to walk through.
It is right there, down the main road from the centre of the town and a row of gorgeous restaurants. You look out of the windows, across the manicured gardens and you are still part of the village, part of life.

It's a honey-coloured building that feels like a large home, a very large home but a home nevertheless. The interiors are dotted with black and white floors, smoothed over the years, with dips and small slopes to show that people have used this space.

This is why Chateau Villandry is relatable.  

Andalusian-style Love Gardens
The Kitchen Garden

The Andalusian Love Gardens...
Tender Love {top right}- hearts surrounded by masks that used to be worn at balls to conceal the face, enabling potential lovers to engage in conversation.

Passionate Love {bottom right} - hearts broken out of passion, entangled to form a maze, further evoking the dance and whirlwind of passion.

Tragic Love {top left} - blades of daggers and swords used in duels caused by amorous rivalry.

Flighty Love {bottom left} - fans symbolise the fickleness of the sentiments, amongst them horns represent betrayed love and in the centre love letters and sweet notes exchanged by lovers.
The UNESCO-protected view...
Once you climb up to the third floor of the chateau and follow the tiny staircase that leads up the tower, you find yourself amongst the spikey rooftops. That in itself is a beautiful feeling, a sense of freedom, surrounded by architectural art.
The view in front of the chateau is endless green on various levels, you don't immediately spot the rivers that meet straight ahead: the Loire and the Cher. The bloodline of the Loire Valley that travels all the way to the Atlantic. The whole stretch of the two rivers is protected by UNESCO, hence nothing can obstruct it. We stood on this rooftop taking in the green surroundings, the cheerful village and the gorgeous, manicured gardens. What a spot.

When we left the chateau we used the map to follow the road along river Cher.
It's a cobbled-stoned path and if you've ever read Hector Malot's 'Sans Famille' as a child, the story will come flooding back, about oxen carts dragging river boats upstream - hence the wide cobbled roads on he sides of the river. And while you daydream and carry on along the quiet river Cher, there is the Loire, the two rivers joining up in a wide, noisy expansion.

Smiles, sunglasses, hugs, strolling in the gardens, "ooohs" and "aaaahs" all around - a good day in the Loire!

View from the chateau rooftops - you cannot really spot the two rivers running in parallel, which is why you must follow along river Cher by car or on bike.
`The village surrounds the gardens - one of my favourite pictures

Bao Fitzrovia

How do you like your buns?
I like mine soft and fluffy, preferably with a crunchy, juicy filling. 
Bao buns are our latest obsession, since we had the Korean version in New York. I've managed to find two places in London that do interesting versions too!
The first is Southam Street - a Ladbroke Grove super sleek joint that serves soft, white buns with super crunchy soft-cell grab and fried chicken. Martinis are spot on too, perfect spot for a grown-up dinner with the girls, chatting over the marble table tops!
The second place is Bao Fitzrovia - a Taiwanese, almost student-like joint, off the oh-so-trendy Charlotte street. You eat at the bar, you circle your order on the menu handouts and you tuck into gorgeous and unusual baos with gusto, like none of the other, thirty or so, dinners around the bar are watching!  
The drinks list is rather imaginative...

Grilled oyster with Sichuan oil
Classic bao - pork filling and crunchy peanut crumble 
The Baos:
Classic - sweet pork filling, bouncy white bao and crispy peanut crumble...smile!
Cod Blackened - this was the least photogenic, but my favourite of the night! Greyish bao and cod in black batter nonetheless! Soft, soft, soft, slight crunch from the fried batter and then smooth and melting cod. Yum-mey!
Beef and fermented egg - looked rich and velvety, I was told it was supreme!
The Daikon - a glorified winter radish, didn't try this one either but I was told it is boldly holding its' place alongside the pork, the cod and the beef!
The non-Baos:
Grilled Oyster with Sichuan Oil and Vinaigrette - I am not always a fan of cooked oysters, I find that there is beauty in their rawness and tiny sip of fresh salty brine, yet it's an oyster, if it's on the menu, I'll order it! This was beautifully balanced, not overcooked and elegantly presented.
Taiwanese fried chicken with soy cured egg - it looks happy! It tastes amazing! I'm always fascinated by cured eggs, I always eat them with equal measure of excitement and anxiety!  
The potions:
Imaginative doesn't even start to describe them!
Sweet potato and fermented pineapple...not in one go, but still. Sake and cherry vermouth. I'm coming back for that!
And a non-alcoholic version with Oreos...they don't call them 'dream drinks' for nothing!  
Black Cod Bao - don't be fooled, the picture doesn't do it justice, this was my favourite!
Fried Taiwanese Chicken and Soy fermented egg

The Daikon - or the glorification of a humble 'winter radish'! 

This is a great pop-in, eat, pop-out place - the food is on point, the service a bit erratic and the drinks are, well, dreamy.

Daytrip from Athens - Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounio

It was the penultimate day of the year. We were in Athens, didn't really care much for shopping, couldn't possibly eat any more and decided to take advantage of the beautiful sunshine. A drive to the southern tip of the Athenian peninsula sounded like a good idea.
The very tip is Cape Sounio.
It's a historically charged spot, a nautical turning point that leads to the Aegean and a Athenian towny's daytrip escape. It's best seen at sunset, with the sun dipping straight into the sea.

The drive from the centre of Athens takes about an hour and is mostly along the coast, so pick your tunes wisely, put your sunglasses on  and drive down to the spectacular Temple of Poseidon.
Think of the Parthenon, but with the Aegean as a backdrop. There, got your attention!  

The Drive...
First the drive took us through some of Athen's elegant southern suburbs, dotted with poshy-woshy restaurants, cafees and nightclubs. Island, 'the' summer destination for every Athenian, is on the way and if you fancy a spot of lunch on you way to Sounio, or if you fancy a boogie on your way back pop in, it's good fun.

Further on, the road curves in and out of little natural ports, little bays with beaches that provide a great pit-stop in the summer, for a quick swim. They are left untouched, tranquil and easy-going, lay out your towel and go for a dip.

One of Athens's suburbs, made popular in 60's Greek movies, is Lagonissi, or 'rabbit island' if translated accurately. On yet another tiny peninsula you'll find Grand Resort Lagonissi, with a gorgeous view of the Saronic Gulf from its lounge bar Veranda.

In the evening, on our way back, we stopped for dinner at Glyfada's buzzing 'centre off the centre'. Glyfada is the congregation spot for the 'southern suburbs'. We went for glorious Italian pasta and chunks of matured parmigiano with truffle-honey at Nomi, a roomy, sleek restaurant that was pleasantly filled with extended families getting together, bringing along kiddies and toddlers.
I love this about Greece. Kids are included at dinner time from a young age, so eating out becomes part of the routine and they even want to be part of the conversation around the table. The thought always makes me smile.

Glorious carbonara at Nomi

Matured parmigiano with truffle-honey, de-li-cious!

The Sunset...
We were late for the sunset in Sounio.
We caught it driving around the coast though. We caught different angles of it every time we drove in and out of the little natural bays, the colours warmer and warmer, the sun closer and closer to the surface of the sea in the horizon.
We kept going regardless.

As we were getting closer to Cape Sounio, cars were already on their way back. We kept going.
As we arrived and run up the hill to the entrance of the archaeological site, they were closing. They didn't let us in but we stayed.
We caught the twilight, over the Saronic Gulf, shades of purple slowly dropping behind the Temple of Poseidon.

We stayed when deep purple turned to deep blue and stars made their appearance, and then the Temple of Poseidon was lit up! What a sight! The Doric columns rising up in the darkness, glowing marble, a truly awe-aspiring sight.

Coastal Road between Athens & Sounio - Thymari
Catching the last colours of the day under the Temple of Poseidon

No matter where you are in Greece, ancient Greek history and myths, still form part of the narrative...

How Theseus on his way back from Crete, forgot to change the sails from black to white, to signal his father King Aegeus, who was waiting for his return at Cape Sounio, that he had killed the Minotaur.

And how Aegeus, Theseus's father, threw himself off Cape Sounio in grief, thinking that his son had been eaten by the Minotaur, naming the Aegean Sea henceforth.

Glorious Doric columns of the Temple of Poseidon, lit up in the night sky
© Life Love London

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