The world’s largest food fight, dubbed La Tomatina, breaks out at 11 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August every year in Buñol, Spain. Tens of thousands of people and 110 metric tons of overripe tomatoes flood the streets in an every-man-for-himself-style melee for one single, all-out, red-dipped hour.
Lavender paints a field purple in Provence, France. The apex of the Dome of the Rock shrine glints gold in Jerusalem, Israel. The red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, jut into a boundless blue sky.
Color makes us stop short in our journeys, compelling us to linger, gawk, and—long after we’ve returned home—remember a destination.
Memory, in fact, works better in color. Psychologists in Europe studying the effects of color noted that we humans are significantly better at recalling color images because color tugs at the senses, creating a stronger connection to the parts of the brain that store and trigger memories.
But color doesn’t just affect your memory of a place. It can affect our mood while we’re looking at it. And that mood’s not just personally motivated; how a color makes us feel is connected to our cultural background. Here’s how certain colors can evoke reactions.
Crimson can excite. This exuberant color often signifies a festival, such as La Tomatina, which for an hour on the steamy last Wednesday of every August drenches the streets of Buñol, Spain, in 110 tons of vibrant red fruit. Also in Spain every spring, scarlet scarves denote the daring feats of the Pamplona bull runners.
In some cultures, white calms. Think of those milky houses of Santorini stretching to the sun-dappled Aegean Sea. They have become such a unifying symbol for the Greek island that it’s been a law to paint houses white since 1974. They fit the Western association of white with cleanness and purity.
On the other hand, the glistening snowy marble of India’s Taj Mahal or Myanmar’s Hsinbyume Pagoda—both tributes to beloved wives—are reminders of the Eastern association of white with mourning.
A very saturated blue crosses most geographic boundaries as a favorite, says Stephen Palmer, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s graduate school. He says he thinks the near-universal bond to all things blue is that “almost all of the things associated with saturated blue tend to be things people like: a clear sky, clean water, sapphires, lapis lazuli, forget-me-nots.”
India’s strand upon strand of orangey marigolds represent the sun and are used to worship Vishnu and his wife Lakshmi. An abundance of the flower at weddings heaps both brightness and prosperity upon the couple. The pumpkin hue also makes for a mesmerizing landscape of sand undulating endlessly across the Sahara in Morocco.
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Often fleeting, like their namesake, rainbow colors can connote an outburst of celebration. The utter profusion of popping dust clouds of every imaginable color during India’s Holi festival celebrates the triumph of good over evil and symbolizes the arrival of spring—and the flirtatious ways of Krishna. Mimicking a rainbow dropped to the plains of Holland, multicolored rows of tulips herald each new spring.
Our reaction to a color isn’t exactly hardwired, says Palmer; it can change over the course of hours or even days. “The more consistently the color is associated with positive experiences, the more the person will tend to like the color,” he says.
In the end, then, an amazing travel experience can make us love one hue in particular. Which color from your travels do you love?