Pardon my ignorance, but I imagined that Waterloo amounted to nothing more than a couple of large Belgian fields, a few fading stone monuments, an interpretative centre with a worthy but tedious audio-visual presentation, and a grotty souvenir shop.

I was right - but only about the fields, the monuments, the centre and the shop. Knock me down with a Green Michelin guide: Waterloo is a town, a pretty big one, too, complete with hypermarkets and a drive-thru McDonald's.

And if you thought Waterloo was a one-battle town, you'd be wrong as well. True, you can't go far in the town without running across a Wellington Taverne or a Napoleon chip shop, but Waterloo is not a place obsessed with its historical status. I drove around for at least 10 minutes before I found a sign directing me to the main battlefield memorial (not what you would have thought, either: 'Butte de Lion' is the place to look out for).

It's impossible to think of Waterloo without thinking battle (or, more probably, station). So it's strange to see the Waterloo Waterloo station, the Waterloo quick-fit exhaust centre and the Waterloo 60-minute dry cleaners.

'Oh, tourism isn't the most important thing for us,' said a woman in the information centre. 'We have many firms here and a large - how you say? - industrial estate. Tourism . . . mou]' she moue-ed.

Waterloo sums up the whole of Belgium's endearingly half-hearted approach to promoting tourism. They encourage visitors in the way I tend to invite people to dinner: 'Come if you must.' They exude confidence that you will have a good time when you do come, but the impression is that they don't want to embarrass you by putting themselves out on your behalf.

They certainly don't waste materials or effort on signposts. Like America, Belgium is signposted for people who know where they're going. The road system and signs in central Brussels, 12 miles north of Waterloo, seem to have been designed by an imbecile: on Saturday evening, I spent more than an hour driving mostly up and down the same labyrinthine back street looking for a recognisable landmark.

I passed the George and Dragon pub so often that the regulars almost took to waving at me. I spotted just one sign for the Grand Place, and looked in vain for directions to the Manneken Pis.

If Waterloo were in Britain, it would be at the heart of an enormous heritage theme park, called 'Waterloo: a battle that healed a continent'. We would be invited to 'Walk through Napoleon and Wellington's camps on the eve of the battle . . . smell the camp fires . . . enjoy re-enactments of French cavalry charges at 1pm and 3pm (except first and third Thursdays of every month) . . . dine on authentic Napoleonic meals at the Regimental Cookhouse . . . watch craftsmen producing typical Napoleonic and Wellingtonian crafts, then buy them at the Quartermaster's Stores.'

But no, the tedious audio-visual shown in the visitor centre resembles one of those curious television displays Michael Bentine used to stage with invisible creatures. The flashing lights on the tableau presumably explain the ebb and thrust of battle (the British thrust is accompanied by Elgar's 'Land of Hope and Glory' - a bit of a chronological inexactitude).

This presentation is followed by a strange, locally made film, intercut with good action footage from the Rod Steiger movie Waterloo. This strange film shows a gang of nauseating children who somehow manage to wander in and out of the battle raging around them.

If the point of this is not clear, the theory is easy to explain: language problems preclude any projection of a thoughtful spoken historical narrative, so a lowest common denominator of worthy entertainment has been cobbled together. One degree lower on the worthy-entertainment scale would have had Edwin Starr springing up on a video, declaiming, 'War, good God, y'all - what is it good for?'

What they should have been playing was Abba. 'My, my - at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender,' sang the Scandinavian songsters. Wrong. One thing I did pick up on my trawl around the dry-as-dust museums is that, if there was one thing Napoleon did not do that day at Waterloo, it was surrender. He ran away, and four weeks passed before he gave himself up. 'My, my - at Waterloo Napoleon did run away and surrender four weeks later . . .'? You wouldn't win the Eurovision Song Contest with that.

Next door to the visitor centre, there is a 'Panorama': a 360-degree painting of the battle. Again, I was underwhelmed. Across the road lies the Waterloo Waxworks museum - Madame Tussaud's, it ain't. 'Wellington, Napoleon, Marshal Ney and many others you will be astonished to see looking so lifelike,' promises a sign outside. The only thing that astonished me was that the owners expected people to pay to look at a few scruffy waxworks.

The one Waterloo activity everybody is keen to participate in is the climb to the Lion monument that commemorates Napoleon's defeat. Once you've struggled to the top, however, there is hardly anything to see: the battlefield tactics make much better sense from ground level. Judging by most coach parties, the Lion monument climb was the limit of their Waterloo experience.

The best part of the battlefield is the farm of Hougoumont, a short walk from Lion hill down another unsignposted road. Wellington reckoned that the holding of Hougoumont was the key to his victory.

The first thing you encounter in the quiet lane to the farm is an unassuming gateway. Here stood the large wooden gates that were heroically closed against the French - an action, it is widely agreed, on which victory hinged.

On a sunny Sunday morning, I found it hard to imagine that, for almost the whole day of the battle, this farm was the scene of terrible fighting and appalling loss of life on both sides. Visitors who came to the farm weeks after the battle reported that the stench of death was still nauseating. Now only cows slumber and the skylarks sing.

Back at the Lion hill carpark, men are parading in period English army costume. Indeed, they are English - members of the 68th Durham Light Infantry, a sort of Wellingtonian Sealed Knot based in Lanchester, near Consett. (We may not be able to export cars, but we are undisputed world leaders in the business of heritage tourism.)

'It's a fantastic life, this,' enthused a young Geordie, thirstily downing a glass of beer. 'We meet people all over. We've been here before.' Do they study the history of the Napoleonic wars, or do they just like dressing-up? 'Don't know too much about history, me, like. We're a great crowd. We're skirmishing tomorrow, if you're around.'

Next year is the big year: the re-enactment of Waterloo, which takes place every five years. 'Be bloody great, that will be. I hope I'm back for that]'

The infantrymen were to attend the 20th anniversary of the Waterloo town band, also tricked out in period costume. The moving force behind them is, inexplicably, a handsome young Irish girl. Next morning outside the attractive domed church, the Geordie army went on parade.

During the service the Waterloo band played 'Amazing Grace' and something that sounded like a selection from Showboat. The congregation was enthusiastic. Heritage tourism meets religion: in the circumstances, nobody would have been too bothered if the band had struck up with 'That's Entertainment' or 'There's No Business like Show Business'.

IF BELGIUM seems to find it hard to decide what sort of image to offer to tourists, that is because it is a country with two distinct faces. Part French- speaking (Walloon), part Dutch-speaking (Flemish); part Catholic, part Protestant; an attitude to the world that is part vie en fete and part puritan work ethic.

The contrasts extend to the topography: Flanders plains to the west, the hills of the Ardennes to the east. The coast offers delicious seaside places; inland such wonderful historic towns as Bruges and Ghent, and such fine spa resorts as, well, Spa.

In many ways it has everything for the tourist, but no clear, single image to grab the imagination. This is a crying shame because it would be hard to find a country more suited to British tastes: good chips (albeit with mayonnaise), the finest beer, an unpretentious view of the world and a people with surprising warmth. One man in Brussels gave me a handful of coins when I asked for change for the telephone - imagine that happening in London.

Yet the British tend to treat Belgium as something of a poor joke, combining the worst of France and the Netherlands - with the suggestion that it offers the interpersonal skills of the French, married to the gastronomic excellence of the Dutch. So while eight million British travellers visit France every year, barely one million of us head for Belgium, a figure that has hardly increased in the past 10 years. So several million people are missing a genuine treat.

Far from containing the worst of France and the Netherlands, Belgium is often a neat synthesis of the two - and in many areas far exceeds both. Brussels may be no great shakes, full as it is of Eurocrats who inflate the cost of hotel rooms and car hire - but it has a style and an energy after dark that puts London to shame. Elsewhere in the country are some of the best small cities in Europe - collectors' items for the serious traveller such as Liege (home of the creator of Maigret, Georges Simenon), Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp.

The low-key charm of Waterloo can provide the perfect introduction to these pleasures - and when the Eurostar Channel tunnel rail services begin later this year, you will be able to take the train from Waterloo to Waterloo.

When I was in the sixth-form, I visited London with a school friend notorious for getting the wrong end of the stick. Travelling to Baker Street one day, he said: 'I'd forgotten about the Battle of Bakerloo. . . . It was at about the same time as the Battle of Waterloo, wasn't it?'

'I think it's called the Bakerloo line because it goes from Baker Street to Waterloo,' I replied.

'No,' he insisted, 'I know there was a Battle of Bakerloo. Look on the map when you get home.'

He was so insistent that I ended up half believing him. And I enjoyed contemplating this place called Bakerloo, the perfect Belgian town: neat Flemish brick houses, carefully cobbled streets, canals spanned by Van Gogh bridges, freshly fried chips, rich beer, sumptuous chocolate shops.

Bakerloo? Perhaps that's where Napoleon really did surrender . . .

(Photograph omitted)