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imageThe city's stunning setting on the hilly terrain of two continents

cheap airport car hire spain

, bisected by boat-choked waterways, is bound to disorient the newcomer, Christmassale while the monuments, scents and the omnipresence of the exotic can be overwhelming. Istanbul is a city to savour at leisure, whether it be pausing to catch a glimpse of the minaret pierced skyline or sitting down with a carpet dealer for your umpteenth glass of ultra sweet black tea.

Begin in the old city, where a staggering wealth of sights are within walking distance, then venture across the Gold en Horn on the Galata Bridge into modern Beyoglu and other sections of this city that sprawls along both sides of the Bosphorus.

Sultanahmet Set on a small peninsula overlooking the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, this is the historical centre of the city and, for over 1,500 years, the heart of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Here, you can view some of the city's finest muse ums, step into some of the world's most hallowed religious structures, wander through royal palaces, view ancient ruins, barter at Istanbul's acclaimed bazaars, dine in a Byzantine cistern and sleep in a finely restored Ottoman house. You can do all this quite comfortably, because Old Stambul is relatively small and easy to navigate on foot.

From the time of its completion under the Emperor Justinian in 537, Aya Sofya or the Church of Holy Wisdom (TueSun 9.30am-4.30pm, later in summer; charge) was the largest and most important church in the Christian world. This astonishing building quickly assumed similar stature in the Islamic world when the Ottoman sultans appropriated it as a mosque 900 years later, adding the four minarets. In 1936, Aratiirk converted the structure to a museum, although Christians and Muslims alike still lay claim to it. Contributing in no small part to the overpowering presence of Aya Sofya is its dome, which was not eclipsed in size until St Peter's rose in Rome 1,000 years later. In designing the dome, Byzantine architects accomplished the impossible the massive structure seems to float over the interior of the church, an illusion created by using hollow bricks made of light, porous clay.

Inside, pride of place undoubtedly belongs to the mosaics, many commissioned by Justinian to ensure that his church would be the most splendid in Christendom. In the 16th century, Siileyman the Magnificent followed Islamic law forbid ding representation of man or animal and ordered the mosaics to be covered. Fortunately, the protective plaster inadvertently saved the mosaics for posterity. Ongoing restorations continue to reveal the sheer splendor of these works, many in gold, portraying saints and angels. Two of the most important show the Madonna and Child, and Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. For a look at more secular images, walk to the far end of the south gallery, where the 11th century Empress Zoe improvised a convenient way to portray a succession of husbands when one would pass on, she would simply have the image of his face replaced with that of his successor. On view for the ages is Zoe's last husband, Constantine.

In the 16th century Sultan Ahmet I commissioned a mos que within the shadow of Aya Sofya, designed to rival it. The Sultan Ahmet Camii, better known as the Blue Mos que (daily 9am7pm except at prayer times; best to visit early in the morning; donations) had six minarets, equal to the number of the Great Mosque in Mecca. To quell the resulting outrage, Sultan Ahmet was forced to donate a seventh minaret to Mecca. Entering from Sultanahmet Square, pass through the forecourt and side doors (only the faithful can walk through the massive main portal), and you will find yourself standing beneath a canopy of airy domes. The space is bathed in the light of 260 stained glass windows and aglow with 20,000 blue iznik tiles.

Adrian Vultur writes for cheap airport car hire spain

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