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Jenni Murray: Godmother of the rivers

06 June 2022

Saga Magazine columnist Jenni Murray is Godmother of Saga’s latest river cruise ships, Spirit of the Danube and Spirit of the Rhine.

Jenni Murray on a river cruise

It was an unexpected email from Louise Robinson, the Editor of Saga Magazine, that set me on an exciting path I could never have anticipated. The headline was a little odd: ‘Godmother! Please see the attached invite from our CEO. I think you would be absolutely perfect for what is a fabulous gig.’

Godmother? I didn’t know anyone who’d recently had a baby, and why would the CEO of Saga be keen for me to perform such a role?

Enquiries revealed it had nothing to do with babies. I wouldn’t have to make the kind of promise I’d made years ago to Carly, my actual goddaughter, to always be good for a fiver. No, this was a different kind of goddaughter I was being invited to christen. And there would be two of them. What a responsibility.

You’d think the wife of a former naval officer would be familiar with such an important maritime tradition. I’d never heard the term before, but I jumped at the chance to become a Godmother, the woman who names a ship and says, ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, I name this ship Spirit of the Danube. May God bless her and all who sail in her, and may she always have a hand width of water under her hull.’ Then comes the smashing of a bottle of Champagne against the hull.

After I’d performed the ceremony for the gorgeous Spirit of the Danube, I was to repeat each detail for her sister ship, Spirit of the Rhine. They are Saga’s latest river cruise ships, designed to carry pleasure-seeking cruisers along the two great rivers of Europe – the Danube and the Rhine. Long, slender and elegant, they have beautiful decor, fabulous restaurants, and even sun terraces with hot tubs.

The ceremony would take place on the Rhine in the Netherlands, and I can barely describe the excitement at the thought of learning how to travel abroad again. Two years of going nowhere was finally coming to a close.

‘Spirit of the danube and spirit of the rhine could not have looked more exquisite’

As I dislike Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport – too big, too confusing – I opted for the Eurostar. It was marvellous – smooth, comfortable and on time.

I spent the first night in a little hotel in Amsterdam and walked along the canal and narrow streets, just avoiding death by bicycle. It was more than 30 years ago that I was last in the city, and the only thing that seemed to have changed was the number of bikes. Thousands of them. Those Dutch must be fit, but then the Netherlands is very flat, so maybe it’s not so hard to get around by bike.

I slept early and well, knowing the next day was going to be busy and possibly a little nerve-racking. How well would my speech go down? Would I get the form of words for the christening right? Would the Champagne bottles smash on cue?

Arriving in Arnhem, there the ships were, parked on the Rhine. (No, not parked. Berthed, I think. Got to get the lingo right.) They were alongside each other in the lee of John Frost Bridge, whose predecessor was the focus of Operation Market Garden in the Second World War, retold in the film A Bridge Too Far. I knew a bit about the story because my father-in-law had been one of the Parachute Regiment who were dropped in 1944 to take the bridge from the Germans. It was a tough battle, but happily my father-in-law survived.

The surroundings could not have been more peaceful, and Spirit of the Danube and Spirit of the Rhine could not have looked more exquisite or welcoming. I couldn’t wait to be on board. Although I’d never done a river cruise before, I love cruising, and being on a ship with a wonderful crew on hand to cater for your every need is the most relaxing event possible.

I climbed on board Spirit of the Danube and wandered around, taking in the comfortable lounge and huge dining room, and looked forward to a trip, maybe in summer, when I would be able to lie on the sundeck, soaking up the dramatic beauty of the countryside around the river and seeing Belgrade and Vienna.

I resisted the encouragement of a couple of young women to hop into the hot tub. We had a sunny day for our ceremony, but there was a cold wind. It would have to be a lot warmer to persuade me into a swimming costume.

Then it was off to my cabin to change for the event. It was surprisingly roomy and well kitted out with wardrobes, drawers, a delightful bathroom and a huge and comfortable bed.

My family does not share my love of cruising. I suppose for my husband it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday, and he’s concerned about pollution caused by passenger ships. But I can reassure him that my ships will cause no such problems. I learnt from the tech guys that – because of how she measures up when it comes to emissions, fuel consumption and safety – Spirit of the Danube has won a Green Award at the top Gold level.

For the big event, I’d changed into a suit and warm jacket. I’d done my hair, although I needn’t have bothered. The wind undid any effort I’d put into it. We gathered on the dock alongside the ships, and the first speeches were from Otto Groen, CEO of Rifjers Nautical Management, which owns Spirit of the Danube and leases it to Saga; and Vincent Bekker from the Vahali shipyard, which built it. Then came Saga Cruises commercial director Peter Wright, then me.

We had a huge audience braving the cold wind to watch the speeches and the smashing of the Champagne, and I managed to get the required words out right. I felt a little bit like royalty. And then I didn’t, because it took four attempts to break the bottle. I was reassured that what felt like a failure had also happened to the Duchess of Cornwall, Godmother of Saga’s ocean ship Spirit of Discovery. Not so bad then.

Spirit of the Rhine went perfectly. Christened in Champagne in the first attempt. Job done.

Back on board for drinks in the lounge, then to the dining room for what I think was one of the best dinners I’ve ever tasted. The galley staff are amazing. As we ate, we sailed for a few hours up and down the Rhine. The ship was quiet apart from the chatting and laughing of the guests, and its movement was almost imperceptible. I hardly knew we were sailing.

At the end of dinner, it was back to my cabin, splendidly prepared by someone else for bedtime, and I slept solidly until breakfast time.

I could not be more proud to have been chosen to be Godmother to Spirit of the Danube and Spirit of the Rhine. May God bless them and all who sail in them, including me!

Take me there

Explore Germany’s wine region on an all-inclusive Spirit of the Rhine cruise in July. The Wine Towns of the Rhine and Moselle tour starts in Amsterdam before taking in Cologne, Bonn and Koblenz, and the vineyards.

From 27 July, Spirit of the Danube visits Budapest and Bratislava, and then ends in a three-night stay in a hotel in Vienna.

Tour details

Wine Towns of the Rhine and Moselle: 12 nights from 5 July from £1,999 per person.

Danube Discovery and Vienna: 10 nights from 27 July from £2,439 per person.

Saga includes

  • Chauffeur service to your UK departure point
  • All gratuities on board
  • Drinks reception and Captain’s dinner

Book today or call 0800 300 400 For each cruise, quote RMG48 for £200 off

Cruise some of the world's most beautiful waterways. Find out more about river cruises here


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.